Walt Whitman (1819-92) wrote, The chief reason for the being of the United States of America is to bring about the common good will of all mankind, the solidarity of the world (Leaves of Grass). Walt Whitman, one of the most influential poets to come out of America was a true patriot. This loyalty to his country is clear in his poetry which continually praises the United States, and was born out of his belief that The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem (Leaves of Grass).
Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), on the other hand, was one of the original American rebels. His hedonistic lifestyle and open rejection of the conservative American values of his time show him in sharp contrast to Walt Whitman. Much of his poetry blatantly throws commonplace norms back in the faces of the people of the Land of Hope and Glory .
These very different attitudes to their homeland create an obvious contrast between the two poets. Whilst Walt Whitman saw himself as a man of the people and a voice for America, Allen Ginsberg revelled in his outcast status. Whitman s Song of Myself is a lyric poem told through the joyful experience of the narrator. Ginsberg s America is the negative admonishment of an outsider to the America he detests.
As a member of the Beats generation Allen Ginsberg abhorred conservative America. This preoccupation to attack the repressiveness of mainstream American culture with little sense of a collective identity is a main theme of Ginsberg s America and this poem emphasises the differences of opinion about America that Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman held.
As celebration of the counterculture of the Beats America asserts itself in Ginsberg s many frank and open admissions of his own activities and personality. Homosexuality, the use of illegal drugs, and a lack of respect for the politics of his society were taboo in the America of the 1950s and 60s and Ginsberg delights in highlighting these activities, a major part of his own life, in his poetry.
In America Ginsberg reveals many of his complaints about his country. His disgust at the nuclear arms race, prevalent at the time, emerges early in America . In line 5 he tells his country to go fuck yourself with your atom bomb . In a humorous if satirical way Ginsberg, in line 16, then wonders When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks? Here Ginsberg belies the superficial nature of his fellow Americans. Ginsberg s love of shock value asserts itself in admitting in line 29 that I used to be a communist and again in line 30 I smoke marijuana every chance I get . In 1950s America these would have been seen as very controversial statements to make publicly. It is for these reasons that Ginsberg was thought of as a dangerous poet and disliked by conservative Americans. Marcus Cunliffe says Ginsberg s work is a dangerously attractive kind of poetry for the legion of young Americans who want to be the great writers but have no talent except the talent (temporary, alas) for being young (The Literature of the United States).
Midway through the poem, line 48, Ginsberg, in a parody of Whitman who saw himself as the American voice, claims It occurs to me that I am America . Unlike Whitman, however, Ginsberg continues this line of thought in line 53 by insulting the country that he is My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals . In line 61 he continues this abusive line of thought by claiming that the American public would have poetry churned out in mass production without thought or understanding I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his automobiles .
In typical Beats fashion in line 66 he is honouring the alienated individual who suffers for his cause, Ginsberg celebrates the memory of two anarchist immigrants Saco and Vanzetti must not die . These two were convicted of the murder of a guard during a shoe factory robbery on what some claim to be very little evidence. It is believed that they were only convicted due to the fact that they were anarchists.
Towards the end of the poem, line 76, Ginsberg satirises the McCarthyist paranoia about Communism. The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia s power mad . Ginsberg s mother was a Communist and he believes that Communist countries-have been unfairly stereotyped as power hungry megalomaniacs and here he laughs at Americas fear of them.
In the final line of the poem, line 90, Ginsberg claims that he will change America for the better to something he can admire, but he also makes a shocking admission of his own homosexuality America I m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel . Such an admission would have been very rare for 1950s America, for Ginsberg, however, due to his contempt for all American conservative social norms it is almost to be expected.
The complexity and great lengths Ginsberg goes to to attack America in this poem are in stark contrast to Whitman s poem of the same title. Whitman s America is a short but heartfelt proclamation of Whitman s desire to bring together the America that he loves and unite it in all its aspects. George Saintsbury says of Whitman It is not difficult to point out the central thesis of Walt Whitman s poetic gospel. It is briefly this: the necessity of the establishment of a universal republic or rather a brotherhood of man (The Unwritten War). This is the exact point of America . Instead of the open wounds of division and misery which Ginsberg takes from his surroundings Whitman in line 1 calls all men to the centre of equal daughters, equal sons and claims them to be all alike endear d . Whitman sees America as an amalgamation of cultures where everyone is welcome and equal, his great faith in American democracy is obvious and in this way he characterises The American difference in terms of America s open, pluralistic, and democratic character (Modern American Culture).
In American Air , a manuscript fragment more than a published poem, Whitman again supports the idea that America is one for all and all for one . In line 2 he says American ground that supports me, I will support you also . According to Mick Gidley and evident from this extract For Whitman the idea of democracy entails not only an equality of voice at the ballot but a thoroughgoing cultural equality (Modern American Culture).
Yet for all their differences in the way they view America Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg possessed some significant similarities. Ginsberg, as well as other poets such as Ezra Pound, was greatly influenced by Whitman and wrote of him and like in, especially in terms of style Writers of the Beats movement have shown an affinity for a Whitmanesque rhapsodic (sometimes frantic ) style best seen in the ululating long lines of Ginsberg s Howl (American Poetry). In stylistic terms Whitman broke the mould in his time, these long, free flowing lines brought, for Whitman, a release from the former static styles of poetry and an expression of the freedom he wished to impress his poetry with. William Carlos Williams said of Whitman s style that he was driven to find a way for himself like the American pioneers (American Poetry).
This style was also an outlet for a new form of poetry separate from the British style formerly dominant in America. Language as well as style was altered and developed into this emerging American voice. Ginsberg as a Beats writer wanted to celebrate a natural American voice. His use of common language and colloquialisms such as go fuck yourself with your atom bomb from America and I saw you Walt Whitman childless, lonely old grabber from A Supermarket in California express his purposeful neglect of civil English used in conservative American poetry to use the language of common speech.
Whitman uses common language not to shock but to envelop his fellow man In speaking as the common man and for him he shows us the beauty and power that lie there, common no longer but greatly uncommon (American Poetry). For Whitman the use of the public self, the I that runs through out Leaves of Grass , allows a changing and developing persona by which he could represent America through its rapid expansion, change and democratic optimism, but also through the traumas of it s Civil War (Modern American Culture).
The common theme running throughout the poetry of both Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman is that of liberty and democracy. Whitman s desire for an amalgamated America and Ginsberg s call for the end to the oppresiveness of authoritarian America resonates throughout their work. Through the Beats movement Ginsberg attacks the representatives of mainstream American culture, it s capitalist ideals in conflict with his desire for a free society. His references to Karl Marx, a radical Socialist, anarchy and communism in America , and in Death to Van Gogh s Ear! he opens by rejecting the capitalism of his country by saying Money has reckoned the soul of America show his derogatory attitude to the politics of his time.
In the 1950s and 60s issues such as the arms race and the anti-Vietnam war movement were rife and the paranoia related to Communism made this a very politically active time. The Beats had little sense of collective politics, they felt oppressed but gifted with insights to share with the world. This belief and the outcast status they were given by society caused the Beats to believe themselves to be beaten and also beatified and identified themselves with minority groups such as homosexuals, black Americans and women. They believed in civil rights for all and did not believe capitalist America as it was provided room for the rights of the oppressed.
Walt Whitman s desire for the rights of black American came from a visit to New Orleans. While he loved the city and is said to have had an affair with a male lover there, which inspired him to write, Once I Pass d Through a Populous City , the slave auctions took place near Whitman s lodgings and he never forgot the sight of them, he kept a poster of a slave auction hanging in his room for many years as a reminder that such dehumanising events occurred regularly in the United States (Whitman Biography). It is from these experiences that Whitman s attitudes to American politics changed.
He came to develop and experimental poetry, a poetry that he hoped would be read by masses of average Americans and would transform their way of thinking (Whitman Biography). In this manner Leaves of Grass developed to try to bring together both sides, to create an understanding between black and white, slave and master. His extreme despair of politics led him to replace what he now named the scum of corrupt American politics (Whitman Biography) led to his use of the American I that can be seen throughout Leaves of Grass .
For all their differences and similarities Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman have emerged as two of the most admired and influential poets of America. Their work contains a passion and belief in their message that has been described as visionary. Allen Ginsberg s talent emerged as the most admired and lasting from the Beat Generation and he is credited with having been the man who inspired the Beat generation with his belief in their ideals and true desire to live them. Harold Bloom says, Allen Ginsberg s mature poems are complicated only by the amount of personality they contain. In the best of them, as in Whitman, egotism is, movingly, a form of diverting the merely personal (Contemporary Poets). Walt Whitman was truly a man of America. His original poetic techniques has led to the belief that he is arguably America s most influential and innovative poet, and his influence on many of America s modern poets can only add to this opinion For Whitman it was the unique destiny of America to achieve that unity and harmony which his poetry both predicted and, he hoped, in the best traditions of prophecy helped to bring about (Modern American Culture).
+ Whitman Biography. 21 November 1999.
+ Bloom, Harold. Contemporary Poets. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
+ Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.