Essay: In Which Ginsberg Uses “America” to Discuss Propaganda -

Essay: In Which Ginsberg Uses “America” to Discuss Propaganda

“America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?”
— Allen Ginsberg

Sometimes, talking to yourself is the only way to have an intelligent conversation. In Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “America,” in the middle of criticizing America and its intense solemnity about everything, he writes: “It occurs to me that I am America / I am talking to myself again” [Ginsberg 41]. One of the unique aspects of the poem is the level of self-awareness of his own hypocrisy as Ginsberg provides scathing observations of daily life in America, especially its propaganda tactics. Remembering a happier America, he attempts reconciliation at first – “America when will we end the human war?” [Ginsberg 39] – thus, appealing to the government, but also to its citizens, of whom he is one.

At the time of writing – 1956 –  the United States was in the throes of the Cold War, and despite her explosive victory at the finale of World War II, the country had made some rather bad decisions, namely the Korean War. The threat of Communism was kept at the forefront of everyone’s mind with “Duck and Cover” educational films and posters plastered all over American monuments, both depicting the eminence of nuclear war – seemingly forgetting who exactly invented the atomic bomb [Simmons]. Ginsberg reprimands America for ignoring the plank in her eye: “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” [Ginsberg 39].

While not exactly writhing with obscenities, Ginsberg is not afraid of using strong language to speak his mind within the poem, and, given how he is indeed talking to an element of himself, there is a stream-of-consciousness style that flows throughout the piece. A lengthy bit comprises of his own experience with Communism, of how his mother would take him to Communist meetings. He recalls how polite and earnest the lot of them were, and then ends the run-on sentence sarcastically, “Everybody must have been a spy” [Ginsberg 42], an observation he could only make with hindsight tainted by American propaganda.

This sort of negative advertising was bolstered by its supposed antithesis, positive propaganda – that is, the promotion of America herself. Everyone is prettier and richer in the United States, Ginsberg implies, but wonders, “When can I go to the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?” [Ginsberg 39] suggesting that he is as much on the outskirts of society as a “million Trotskyites.” [Ginsberg 39] While this may have much to do with him being an openly homosexual man in a very heterosexual world, this phrase also insinuates that his profession [being a poet] is too “queer” [Ginsberg 43] and passive to be of much use in militaristic America. Ginsberg counters this by claiming that he will be a typical American, to delve into the area of consumerism: “I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as / individual as his automobiles more so they’re / all different sexes. / America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 / down on your old strophe” [Ginsberg 42].  This, he feels, is the only way America wants him to contribute “to the cause;” that is, the impending war.

Despite all the hype and anxiety, Ginsberg hints that America really does not want to fight, but if it should come to that, she will not blame herself, but “them bad Russians” [Ginsberg 42]. He throws America’s propaganda back in her face, sending up the level of exaggeration:

The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power

mad. She wants to take our cars from out

our garages.

Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Readers’

Digest. Her wants our auto plants in Siberia. [Ginsberg 43].

It is almost as if Ginsberg is asking, “What is that worst that will happen if Russia does take over America?” That Americans will lose the privilege of driving cars? That a Communist Readers’ Digest will appear? Ginsberg is ridiculing America’s solemnity, and uses incorrect grammar to highlight the ignorance and stupidity of those who worry about such things.

“Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?” [Ginsberg 40] he asks, indicating the pervasiveness of media. “It’s always telling me about responsibility. […] Everybody’s serious but me” [Ginsberg 40]. His exasperation here alludes to the fact that Ginsberg’s work has been criticized for being anti-patriotic even when being overtly sarcastic or humorous. In his point of view, America just cannot take a joke, and is one of reasons that her society is crumbling. “America this is quite serious,” he states. “I’d better get right down to the job” [Ginsberg 43]. Even though Ginsberg has been the victim of discrimination and knows all too well the level of hypocrisy in his country [“America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing” {Ginsberg 39}], he also realizes that he still must contribute to fixing the problems he mentions, thus giving a strange sense of hope in an otherwise bleak poem.

Works Cited

  • Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956. 39-43. Print.
  • Simmons, Dana. “Cold War.” University of California, Riverside. 24 February 2011. Lecture.



Like many people, my first introduction to Allen Ginsburg was in college, specifically my Introduction to Alternate Critical Perspectives on Literature and Culture class. While I didn’t fall head over heels for him or the rest of the Beat Generation, I was still greatly impressed, not having read poetry like this before. It was indeed fairly moving. This was written in 2011 and was actually a preliminary to a larger essay, our final one for the class. Here is my professor’s feedback:

Hayley, Nice work! This is an insightful reading of Ginsburg’s “America.” You make a wonderful observation about poetics being always already a queer profession. You have many research options moving forward. You might consider looking into Ginsburg’s politics, communism, Cold War propaganda and poetics, militarization (Cynthia Enloe?), other essays on Ginsburg/ “America,” imperial politics, and/or the Beat Generation.

Header image: “Nov 3, 2008” by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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