Allen Ginsberg, Covert Patriot
© 2004, Raanan Kagan
Allen Ginsberg is, without a doubt, most famous for his poem "Howl" which he
published in October of 1956 through City Lights Books in San Francisco.
"Howl", like much of his other poetry, is an intensely personal and also very
complex poetic expression lacking rhyme and, to many people, also lacking
reason. In actuality, however, "Howl" serves as an autobiographical sketch and
it acts, in some ways, as a precursor to his lesser known poem from the same
publication, "America," which is his final articulation of his love for his
country and his disillusionment with its current state of affairs. Together,
both of these poems form a culmination (as of 1956) of the journals he had been
keeping throughout his life and are the final "howl" of the simultaneous love
and discontent with his situation as well as that of his country. Through
"Howl" and "America" Ginsberg is expressing his disillusionment with American
culture and his own life by retelling his own life experiences; however, he is
also demonstrating a love of America and American culture that he has held
throughout his life and which he, finally, was able to put down in poetic verse
in his compilation Howl and Other Poems.
From a very early age, Ginsberg's life was chaotic, and that, in turn,
produced a disenchanted view of society. His parents were both extremely
politically active and were not in political agreement. As a result politics
was a subject to which he became accustomed rather early because his mother,
Naomi, was a member of the Communist part and his father, Louis, was a
Democratic Socialist (Miles 6). Naomi and Louis fought often about politics and
the situation, no doubt, left Ginsberg both passionate and confused about
politics at a very early age. During his parents' fights about politics during
World War II, Ginsberg would often attempt to take sides -- usually, against
his mother (Miles 24). In addition, Ginsberg was a social misfit even as early
as in his primary school years when he would often do anything, including lie
or destroy property -- albeit unintentionally -- to gain acceptance among his
peers (Miles 14). At a very tender age Ginsberg learned that other people can
be mean and unaccepting, especially of the little Jewish, goofy lanky boy with
the thick glasses; although, by the time he was sixteen he had developed
friends at school (Miles 25). This, predominantly negative, early childhood
experience in the social and political worlds would surface again and feature
quite prominently in both "Howl" and "America."
In addition to having early experiences with the political and social trends
which would later surface in "Howl" and "America," Ginsberg also had a very
close connection to the mentally handicapped through his mother who was,
although not officially diagnosed as such in those days, a paranoid
schizophrenic. His mother began to exhibit symptoms when Allen was still young
and, when he was eleven years old, he witnessed his mother try to kill herself.
It is interesting, and certainly not irrelevant, to note that it was at in the
same year that Ginsberg witnessed his mother in this state that he began
keeping careful journals (which were, later in life, to become a major
published collection) (Miles 18). Naomi became dangerously paranoid -- fearing
Allen's grandmother and, eventually, his father too -- but always returning to
the desire to be loved by her son (Miles 30). She was eventually committed to a
mental institution by Allen's father and she was in and out of such
establishments for the remainder of her life. When Allen was 21 he signed
papers for his mother to have a lobotomy and ever since he wondered if had been
the right thing to do (Miles 94). Of course, much of Ginsberg's attitudes and
feelings about his mother are expressed in "Kaddish," but it seems more than
coincidental that madness would prove such an over arching theme in "Howl" and,
to a lesser extent, "America."
In addition to his early childhood trauma, Ginsberg's life continued to be
filled with odd, often unfortunate and traumatic incidents, all of which would
resurface in his later poems and serve to further shape his discontent with the
country. In the fall of 1944, after having been at Columbia University for only
one year, Allen's friend Lucien Carr stabbed their mutual friend, David
Kammerer, to death because of unwanted sexual advance. Carr eventually served
jail time. Ginsberg's friends Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs were also
arrested although subsequently released (Miles 46). Allen was enormously
affected by the incident, as one would expect of a freshman in college whose
friends had just been involved in a homicide. That incident, however, was only
the tip of the iceberg of Ginsberg's experiences at Columbia, which later
shaped his work so much.
Prior to discussing any more of Ginsberg's experience with other people, it is
necessary to examine his, now famous, Blake visions that occurred in July of
1948. Ginsberg sat in his apartment, having just read some Blake poems and
glanced over one, "Ah -- Sunflower." He heard what he describes as an earthly
voice that he immediately recognized as the voice of Blake himself. Ginsberg
found this vision spiritually eye-opening, claiming that "this was the moment I
was born for" (Caveney 54). He would then proceed to spend, by and large, the
next fifteen years of his life attempting to get back to that original
experience by taking every type of mind-altering drug he could (Caveney 55).
While the experience frightened Ginsberg's father, who feared it was related to
Naomi's sickness, Ginsberg himself insisted, as late as 1986, that the vision
was the only truly clear moment he had ever had (Caveney 55). Although Ginsberg
embraced his visions in ways that his mother had not, and despite the fact that
they were benign and hers malignant, it can only be right to point out that, at
this point in his life, Allen had personally come into contact with some form
of madness -- even if he thought it was the benevolent kind -- and he would see
more of this madness (in fact it would pervade his life) that eventually
releases itself in "Howl."
During 1949, after having already been suspended from Columbia for offensive
graffiti and (unofficially) for sleeping with Kerouac in the dorms, Allen was
living with a friend, Herbert Huncke. Huncke was a thief and began using
Ginsberg's apartment as a storage location for all of his stolen goods. After
asking Huncke to get rid of his stuff, Huncke complied and took Ginsberg on the
ride, only to be stopped for driving a stolen car (Caveney 56). As a result of
the police, Columbia University, and his father (still reacting to Allen's
visions of Blake), Ginsberg was placed in Columbia Psychiatric Institute, where
he remained until 1950. CPI was Ginsberg's second encounter with the mentally
ill, and this time it came in the form of a roommate, Carl Solomon, who was
committed because he showed up at CPI demanding an instant lobotomy (Miles
118). In CPI, Ginsberg was encouraged to relinquish all individuality in
addition to any ideas about visions (Miles 120). Another goal of CPI was to
convince Ginsberg to pursue a more "traditional" life which entailed "becoming"
heterosexual and, for a time, Ginsberg did convince himself that he
was heterosexual and even had fairly significant romantic relationships with
women (Miles 123, 126).
Having examined Ginsberg's life we can now examine his poetry as a reflection
of his experiences.
Part One of "Howl" is Ginsberg's poetic autobiography of his chaotic life up
until 1956, and it is from it that his indictment of American culture in Part
Two of "Howl" and "America" stem. Ginsberg begins "Howl" by declaring, "I saw
the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical
naked" (Howl 9). Here, Ginsberg is making his initial declaration that the
"madness" that he has observed permeates his life and the American experience.
It can refer to his mother -- whom he, literally, saw destroyed by madness. Or
to himself, his Blake visions, and his lifelong quest to recapture that
feeling. Or to Carl Solomon, or Lucien Carr who killed his own friend. Or to
Kerouac, Burroughs and Neil Cassady who, in their own ways, were all affected
Ginsberg further specifies that this madness is in reference to himself when
he writes, "who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating... and Blake-light tragedy... who were expelled from academies
for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the window of the skull" (Howl 9). He
includes Carl Solomon specifically as well, saying, "and subsequently presented
themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse... demanding instantaneous
lobotomy" and he concludes, "ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe and
now you're really in the total animal soup of time" (Howl 18, 19). He makes
specific reference to Neal Cassady as well, "N.C., secret hero of these poems"
(Howl 14) and includes a plethora of other examples of the misadventures of
both Kerouac and Burroughs. The entire first section of Howl oozes discontent
for the treatment he and his friends have received in the cruel world of people
who could not accept the goofy Jewish boy from Paterson, New Jersey. Each of
Ginsberg's famous "who" lines represents another chapter -- some easily
understood and others much more cryptic -- of his own life experiences and how
they reflect the corruption of the "best minds" by so-called madness.
Unlike his earlier poetry, it is difficult to find direct references to
Ginsberg's early life in "Howl," other than the reference to his mother's
madness; however, it is there beneath the surface. The unspoken political
undertones of the first section of "Howl" (which later become overt in Part Two
and in "America") were, in all likelihood, set in motion at an early age when
he took sides in his parent's political fights. His view of all his friends as
underdogs -- destroyed, unfairly, by madness -- harkens back to his childhood
experiences of rejection and desire for acceptance. Now, he has moved on from
his desire to be accepted and is looking back with disdain on that idea,
thinking that, at thirty years old, it is okay to "wander around and around at
midnight in railroad yard wondering where to go... leaving no broken hearts"
(Howl 11). He has moved on from the specific childhood experiences that bogged
him down in his earlier more traditional poetry; but that is not to say that
the influences are not still there -- his history of governmental criticism
(from his Marxist mother) continue to express itself strongly in America.
After having listed his grievances by pouring out all the experiences of his
thirty years of life in long-lined verse, Ginsberg begins a second section
where he squarely places the blame for the atrocities listed in Part One on
"Moloch" -- the soul of greed and negativity in the world (or, more
specifically, in the United States). Part Two of "Howl" is a conglomeration of
imagery that Ginsberg finds offensive and which has led to the
less-than-desirable situation that he and his friends are in. He mentions a
"Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time" (Howl 23) and he refers to money,
machinery, filth, armies, blind windows, factories, poverty, oil and
hallucinations. It would be fruitless to try to analyze each specific reference
because he assembles them for stylistic purposes; it is the overall picture
painted by these references that is of importance to Ginsberg's overarching
message. His generation is "down," caught on the rocks of Time -- their place
in this society that consists of money, machinery, armies, factories and filth.
Moloch is to blame for all of these things because Moloch is all of these
things. For Ginsberg, Moloch is the epitome of evil, greed, and corruption --
and Moloch pervades American society in 1956.
The seeds of the political discontent that will blossom in "America" are also
present in Part Two of "Howl." Ginsberg bemoans a "Congress of sorrows" and
declares that Moloch is, "the stunned governments" who do nothing in the face
of the ever-increasing madness that he finds in his life and that of those
around him. Moloch is "loveless" and Moloch is the "heavy judger of men"
because there is no love in the greed that makes up America culture (Howl 21).
Moloch, he says, was with him from the very beginning -- as early as childhood
he must have seen Moloch in society. There is "Moloch who entered my soul
early!" and "Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy" (Howl 22).
Although Ginsberg is saying that Moloch existed even when he was younger he
indicates that there was, at some point, "ecstasy", which only ceased because
it was crushed by Moloch. It is this optimism that will be of utmost importance
in "Footnote to Howl" and "America."
Most of Ginsberg's indictment of "Moloch" can be found in his parallel
indictment of his country in "America." Ginsberg begins America by declaring
that he has "given [America] all and now [he's] nothing" (Howl 39). Everything
that he had -- the good that he started with -- has been sucked away by the
evil in America which is the Moloch in America. He beseeches America, when will
it "end the human war", when will it "be angelic"? He mourns
that its machinery is too much for him (Howl 39). It is no coincidence
that the machinery image is repeated from Part Two of "Howl." It sounds as
though, when he questions America, Ginsberg could easily be questioning Moloch.
This suggests that Moloch is an integral, and very much hated, part of America.
Themes of prison, money, armies, and Communism recur again as Ginsberg puts
America on trial but not unlike "Howl" it is the collection of images to cry
out to America rather than the individual ones.
Ginsberg returns to stories of his youth (which were lacking in "Howl") and he
recounts a story of when he was seven years old in one ten-line "line" where he
attends a Communist meeting and he describes how "angelic" it was. Ginsberg
hints at longing for the good in America but seems to be focusing only on the
bad. His charge that it is Russia and Asia that are the cause for the Cold War
is, clearly, a satirical jab at the war-hawk attitude of American politics. For
Ginsberg, Moloch is a part of American society, it has taken its hold of
America and his poem is written to make America aware of her state of affairs.
Despite the undeniable negativity displayed prominently in parts one and two
of "Howl" and in the allegations that Ginsberg brings against America, there is
an undercurrent of optimism present in both "Footnote to Howl" and "America"
which reveals Ginsberg's positive and, surprisingly, patriotic side. "Footnote"
begins with fifteen repetitions of the word "Holy" and then immediately
declares "the world is holy" (Howl 28). Ginsberg goes so far as to proclaim
some of the very things that he declares to be wrong with society -- those
things which are Moloch -- as holy. He writes that, the "mysterious rivers of
tears" are holy as is the "vast lamb of the middle class." These seem at first
to be things that Ginsberg would more likely have included under the category
of "Moloch," rather than the category of holy. However, Ginsberg is making the
point that even within these streets that flow with tears and within the
catastrophe that is the conforming thoughtless middle-class America, there is
holiness. There is kernel of goodness, truth, and value -- or at least
something worthy of praise. There is something from which America, as a whole,
can be salvaged. He goes on to cry, "Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith!"
(Howl 28). Despite all of the horrible atrocities of Moloch, there remains
forgiveness, mercy, and charity in America. A duality, he suggests, exists
between the evil side which is Moloch and the good side which, he proclaims, is
"holy." Furthermore, there is "faith" -- faith is holy and he has faith in the
good side of America.
Ginsberg ends his epic poem "Howl" on a note that is much different than that
on which he started -- a positive and guardedly optimistic one. Ginsberg's
final line of "Footnote" reads, "Holy the supernatural extra brilliant
intelligent kindness of the soul" (Howl 28). This line can be seen as, both, a
adoration of the human soul as the uplifting, powerful, kind,
intelligent and benevolent force in humanity. In this way, it can be understood
that humans -- the Americans -- can bring themselves out of this era of Moloch
that dominates the country. Moreover, this soul can be seen as the soul of the
country, a sort of kind underbelly to the society which, Ginsberg would say, is
overrun by the spirit of Moloch. The difference between the two is significant.
If it as seen as the human soul then it is with individuals that the
holiness of the country truly lies, whereas if it is to refer to a
country-soul, then the redeeming qualities of America are inherent in the
country itself. It doesn't matter, however, whether one chooses to see
Ginsberg, in this sense, as a Humanist or as a supernatural patriot (so to
speak), because the significance, for the purposes of this discussion, is that
he does believe that the there is a soul. There is a redeeming quality
to America which will allow the country to rebound from the ugliness of its
domination by Moloch and greed.
Before delving into the meat of "America," it is important to pause to
consider the opinion that the poem has no meaning whatsoever -- which has been
suggested seriously in the past. "That book [all of the "Howl" poems] was
organized according to abstract questions of form rather than political or
personal matters and was to be read by poets as an exploration of the metrical
and structural possibilities" (Foster 106). Foster claims that the only
purpose behind "America" was to "attempt to make combinations of short lines
and long lines, very long lines and very short lines" (Foster 106). Surely
Foster is right in pointing out Ginsberg's use of rhythm and line length in
both the "Howl" booklet as a whole and in "America" specifically; however, it
seems ludicrous to suggest that the poems contained in this work are neither
political nor personal. Leaving aside, for sake of argument, the fact that they
are explicit references to Ginsberg's life and that it is, arguably, impossible
to write a non-political poem which address an entire country, it should be
undeniable that any poet -- or any writer at all -- cannot help but include
personal matters in his or her poetry even if that is not his or her primary
goal, which it seems, quite clearly, to have been in this case. It is not
necessary to explore the deeper meaning of the positive and patriotic side of
Ginsberg's poetry to show that Foster has, for all intents and purposes, missed
the mark in his assessment of Ginsberg's work. He has written a marvelous work
on Ginsberg's experimental and influential use of line length but, in doing so,
he has failed to grasp the deeper meaning of the text which is of great
importance in understanding both the meaning of the poems and, more
importantly, in understanding Ginsberg himself.
Having seen the glimmer of something more positive at the end of "Howl," we
can move on to "America" in which Ginsberg is, much more directly, addressing
what he sees as wrong with the country and, finally, drawing the same
conclusions as before -- there is hope for America yet. It is obvious that
"America" is poem which puts the country on trial. Though he drifts in and out
of personal experiences and more general political accusations about America's
faults, it is clear that Ginsberg is dissatisfied with America thus far in his
life. He is very upset about World War II and about the Cold War, and they are
both featured prominently in "America." He says to the country, "go fuck
yourself with your atom bomb," and he asks when it will end the "human war"
(Howl 39). It is difficult to isolate which parts of "America" are the
important accusations that Ginsberg brings against the country because, as has
been mentioned, the nature of his poetry is to be understood as a collection of
images, rather than for each image to be seen on its own (as with traditional
It is significant, however, to point out the section towards the end of the
poem where Ginsberg takes on the voice of America and he reduces to
caveman-like grunts about the Russians and the Chinese. Communism and the war
against it are big issues for Ginsberg, and he holds America almost entirely
responsible for the wars that they claim are "in the name of democracy." He
uses a sarcastic tone to make his point on this issue even harsher, "America
you don't want to go to war/ it's them bad Russians / Them Russians them
Russians and them Chinamen. / And them Russians" (Howl 42).
Before turning to the underbelly of patriotism that is exposed in "America" it
is necessary to show that "Footnote to Howl" is really the antecedent of
"America." Many of the themes from "Footnote" continue into "America" --
including, but not limited to, the war and Communism themes that have just been
discussed. The theme of machinery that played such a crucial role in all the
parts of "Howl" surfaces again in "America" as Ginsberg continues his
illumination of the role of Moloch in the country. Ginsberg's reference to
machinery in "America" is short; however, its implications are significant. He
says, "Your machinery is too much for me" (Howl 39). The machinery, or the
Moloch, in society has overcome him -- it is too much. At the same time,
though, this suggests that the mere existence of machinery is not, inherently,
evil; there is just, surely, too much of it to the point that it overwhelms
him. This is a very subtle indicator of the optimism that is more prevalent in
Despite the apparently negative tone that Ginsberg takes towards the country
in "America," there is ample evidence that he is patriotic and positive about
America's future. In questioning America, he uses the form "when will" rather
then "why aren't you" implying that he does believe that, at some
point, the holiness will prevail and America will become angelic -- America
will take off her clothes. In addition, he says that America made him "want to
be a saint" and he confesses that he is sick of America's "insane demands."
Ginsberg is suggesting that America has demanded too much of itself, it has
forgotten that everything is inherently holy (the point he made in "Footnote")
and, as a result, Moloch has taken over the country. He asks America, "this is
the impression I get from looking in the television set / America is this
correct?" as if to suggest that, despite the impression he (and no doubt
others) have about the negative aspects of America, it may not be the full
picture (Howl 43). There may be, and indeed he hopes and believes that there
is, something else to America that is not what he has seen through the
television. Finally, Ginsberg ends his poem the same way he ends "Howl" on a
positive note that implies change is possible for the Moloch-afflicted country.
"America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel" he proclaims (Howl 43). He
is committing himself; he will work and do his part for the betterment of the
country. He is "getting right down the job" which, in this case, is the job of
fixing the broken country which he loves dearly.
It has been suggested, by scholars of Ginsberg, that this optimism is nothing
but a reflection of Whitman's optimism and love for America; however, this
seems intuitively false. Merrill suggests that, "first and foremost is the
souring of Whitman's exuberant optimism toward America into a disillusionment
that suggest[s] the breaking of the covenant" (Merrill 65). While it seems that
Merrill has probably hit the nail on the head with regard to Whitman's
influence on Ginsberg regarding optimism, it is to underestimate Ginsberg as a
poet and as a human being to assume that all of the optimism that he expresses
comes merely as an echo from his readings of Whitman. Moreover, Merrill has
chosen to read the poem in a very negative (and much more traditional) light,
whereby the initial optimism turns into disillusionment and hatred of society
as Moloch-ridden. Merrill seems to neglect completely the optimism that ends
both poems, demonstrating a clear progression from the negativity at the
beginning of the poems to a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel at their
conclusions. Finally, there is one more source to which we can turn to verify
that Ginsberg, all along, had positive hopes and dreams for America.
As noted earlier, Ginsberg kept a journal for nearly all of his life, and it
is from that journal that the very first (known) draft of "America" can be
found. Ginsberg's initial draft of "America" is just as full of hope and
patriotism, but it too is just below the surface. Like the final version, the
later draft starts with negativity as well, "inspire me tonight with dream like
poem / ...the fate of this country I hide in / penniless and lovelorn waiting
for the barren doom of my own days" (Journals 36). The imagery here is
different than the final draft -- which indicates that it was probably altered
to be more related to "Howl" -- but the imagery is no less dark. Awaiting the
"barren doom of his own days" while he sings of "America and Time" is quite
overtly a statement that there is no chance for America and that all there is
to do is await ones immanent doom. Machinery, as in the final draft, is
featured prominently; he writes, "witness the downfall and roar of daily life,
/ in riches and despair amid great machinery" (Journals 36). Yet more proof
that, although his style changed drastically over time, the ideas did not, and
that consequently they were Ginsberg's own, rather than, simply, an
extension of the long-lined work of Whiteman.
The end of the original version of "America," which dates to 1954, is not
nearly as hopeful as the end of the final version, but the kernel of hope is
there which demonstrates that even in the formative phases of the poem there
was light at the end of the tunnel for what otherwise would seem to be a doomed
America. Ginsberg ends the first draft of his poem by declaring, "Dark America!
toward whom I close my eyes for prophecy, / and bend my speaking heart! /
Betrayed! Betrayed!" (Journals 36). Although calling America "dark" and calling
himself "betrayed," Ginsberg implies in these remarks that he turns to America
for "prophecy" and, in turn, for hope. Furthermore, in order to be betrayed by
America, he must first have put his trust in America, which implies a
pre-existing patriotism. An enemy cannot betray you because you never trusted
him -- only a friend can commit betrayal. Ginsberg, therefore, proclaims
America his misguided friend but confesses that he still bends his heart to her
and has sympathy for her while looking to her future, still, in the form of her
Ginsberg's poetry came a long way, both stylistically and ideologically, from
the original draft of "America" in 1954. Those supremely important ideas of the
destruction of America by Moloch, however, remained constant and in fact became
much more prominent. Ginsberg is often touted as a poet who writes with no
revisions; however, this is commonly known to be inaccurate. How could he
attempt to sift through thirty years of life experiences and mounting anger
with only one draft? The published versions of his work, therefore, should
reflect his most fine-tuned expression of his ideology. It would not have fit
for Ginsberg to have said explicitly that he loved America. The impact of his
poems would have been too blunted. It was necessary for Ginsberg to rehash his
entire life -- everything that he ever felt was wrong, unfair, dirty or corrupt
-- and create a scathing indictment of America, in order to juxtapose it with
his deeper, more compassionate, feelings that there is still life left in
America. Without Parts One and Two of "Howl," "Footnote" and "America" lose
much of their meaning. Likewise, without Ginsberg's unique and rather
unpleasant life there could have been no beginning of "Howl." Someone who had
not experienced those whos first hand surely could not have written
about them as he did, and it is the shock of the lengthy assault of all of
those images that builds up to the opposing ideas of Moloch and Holiness.
Although it is easy to dismiss Allen Ginsberg as a cynic, it is crucial to
remember that, both as a poet and as a person, he is much more complex, as is
his view of the country. Ginsberg was not anti-American, he loved a great deal
about America and felt awful about its situation in the 1950s. Ginsberg was
simply another man who wanted change.
Caveney, Graham. Screaming with Joy: the Life of Allen Ginsberg. New
York: Broadway Books, 1999.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Columbia: University
of South Carolina Press, 1992.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. 57th printing San Francisco:
City Light Books, 2001.
---. Journals Mid-Fifties 1954-1958. Gordon, Ball Ed. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.
Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg: Revised Edition. Boston: G.K. Hall
& Co., 1988.
Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. London: Virgin Publishing Ltd.,