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Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 Poem “America”: a Lost Ending

Photograph Source: Michiel Hendricks – CC BY-SA 3.0

The most famous line in all of twentieth-century American poetry can be found in Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem, “America,” which was published in the Pocket Poets series by Lawrence Ferlinghettis City Lights in the volume titled Howl and Other Poems. That famous line reads, “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” It’s addressed to America itself, and it has been quoted and popularized by anarchists, communists, beatniks and hipsters over the past 36 years.

The poem ends on a whimsical note, “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” a not-so veiled reference to the poet’s homosexuality, and his sense that though he was queer he had a role to play in the society as a whole.

Ginsberg wrote the poem in Berkeley in January 1956. The original version of the poem appeared in its entirety in Black Mountain Review (BMR) # 7, which was associated with Black Mountain College. The poet, Robert Creeley, edited it, and it contained work by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, along with Michael McClure and Gary Snyder, who are among the last living members of the original-founding brothers of the Beat Generation.

Part II, which appears in BMR and not in Howl and Other Poems or in Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, begins, “America how shall we cultivate the Cosmic Vibrations?” It ends, “All arbitrary discriminations hereby abolished Russia/ America — the robin he just jumped into my tree/in the rain drops.”

Ginsberg adopted a similar rhetorical strategy in the 1960s, when he wrote in Wichita Vortex Sutra, “I here declare the end of War!”

Like the English romantic, Shelley, Ginsberg thought poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Much of Part II of “America” —the lost part—will be familiar to readers of Ginsberg’s work.  The lines are long. The poem is prose-like with rhetorical questions such as “America how shall we cultivate the Cosmic Vibrations?”

There are references to historical and literary figures including Ethel and Julius Rosenberg—whose execution Ginsberg denounced in 1953— and Walt Whitman, whom Ginsberg describes as “alone of American poets…completely hip.” God makes an appearance, along with “tea heads” [Beat Generation slang for marijuana users] who are presented as the only people who have “any idea of what Democracy means.” Ginsberg was smoking quite a bit of weed in Berkeley.

The Catholic Church takes a beating along with Zen Buddhists, whom Ginsberg describes as “egotists.” The “Synagogue,” with a capital letter “S” is heralded as a place where God “knocks and vibrates.”

Unlike the first part of the poem, there’s no use of the words “I,” as in “I’m obsessed by Time Magazine, and “You,” as in “America when will you be angelic? / When will you take off your clothes”—which are among the most memorable in the entire work.   The last section is both too silly and too serious, and the image of the robin in the tree feels inappropriate in a poem that touches on the Cold War, the Old, Old Left (including Mother Bloor and Scott Nearing), and “arbitrary discriminations.”

The self-mocking that’s apparent in lines such as, “I can’t stand my own mind” are missing from part II. There are also more references in part II to nature—“my garden,” “My tree,” “the Robin,” and “the raindrops”—than in part I.

Berkeley in 1956 did seem heavenly to a repressed New York homosexual.

What will surprise readers and fans of Ginsberg’s poetry isn’t anything about the content or the form of Part II, but simply that it exists. After all, Ginsberg insisted that he didn’t revise or edit his work. His mantra was “First Thought Best Thought.” Part II of “America” offers his first thoughts, though they’re not his best thoughts. He was right to cut them and not to republish the version of the poem that appeared in BMR in 1957. Still, there’s something endearing about the line, “Man, listen to that band of angels swing.”

Ginsberg meant the whole human race. Part II shows him at his most humanistic, and his most sentimental, along with a sweet spirituality that seems to come from the universe itself and not from an organized religion.

It’s not Ginsberg at his best. Nor is it Ginsberg at his worst. But it’s Ginsberg. And it’s worth reading about and thinking about.

America go fuck yourself with your drones and your white house and your borders and your fucking hypocrisy.

From Black Mountain Review # 7.

Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation.

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