Study Guide

America (In)sanity

By Allen Ginsberg

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Reading "America" can make you feel like you've lost your mind. It can also make you think that Ginsberg has lost his mind. But really, just living in America can produce the same effect. Don't believe us? Just flip on a cable news network, surf the news sites, or (gasp!) flip open a newspaper. What kind of stories are you likely to encounter? Of course, our speaker has had this exact experience, and so a good part of the poem is dealing with the issue of how society draws the line between "sane" and "insane."

  • Line 3: At the very start of the poem, the speaker offers this confession: "I can't stand my own mind." In a way, this announces a major idea in the poem, which is the inner conflict that the speaker experiences as a result of both being an American, and being super-unhappy about how America treats its citizens and the rest of the world. For our speaker, the personal is political, and vice versa. His lines are not just political talking points; they are the work of a mind wrestling with its own sense of self as an American.
  • Line 7: When we read, "I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind," in a poem that goes on for…oh, another 72 lines, we have to wonder. Is the speaker in his right mind? (The phrase "in your right mind" is a figure of speech known as an idiom.) Given this line, are we now assured that, since the poem continues, the speaker feels sane enough to continue? Or has the speaker ignored his declaration (like someone who is not in their right mind might do) and written the poem anyway? The point is: do we trust our speaker's mental state? Or are we even supposed to? Isn't leaving the comforts of one's own nice, comfy reality a necessary step if one is going to get any meaningful perspective on one's surroundings?
  • Line 14: Of course, sanity is a two-way street. Who's to say that our speaker is perfectly sane, and the rest of country is insane? Well, the speaker is to say, that's who: "I'm sick of your insane demands." With this line, we start to wonder if the trouble that the speaker describes in his own mind is not merely a reflection of the insanity that he feels surrounds him daily.
  • Line 23: Despite the difficulty, though, the speaker remains resolute: "I refuse to give up my obsession." Does the fact that he realizes that he is obsessed make the speaker more or less sane to you? In this line, we get the sense that, despite the mental challenges posed by critiquing one's own country, the speaker sees the payoff as worthy of the struggle. In other words, the (brain) squeeze is worth the (justice) juice.
  • Line 34: There is good news, though: "My psychoanalyst thinks I'm perfectly right." So take that! The speaker's got the support of a trained professional of mental health to back up his arguments. Of course, it's interesting to notice that the psychoanalyst doesn't necessarily think that the speaker is sane. Perhaps he just agrees with the speaker's politics, even if he is insane.
  • Line 50: In the end, though, there is also a political angle to all this talk about sanity and insanity. Consider when the speaker says, "My national resources consist of […] twentyfivethousand mental institutions." We don't know about you, but that sure sounds like a lot of mental institutions to us. What's up with that? What would a country need with so many mental institutions? Unless… either that country was operating under a false idea of what kind of person truly needed to be put in a mental institution, or that conditions of living in that country's society drove so many people insane. Either way, in this line we see the speaker laying the blame squarely on the shoulders of American society.
  • Line 79: The speaker says that he's not cut out for the regular 9-5 kind of work, because he's "nearsighted and psychopathic anyway." What's to be made of this admission? Is it another joke? Is he being serious? In either case, the speaker lets us know that his mental state sets him off as different from "normal" Americans.

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