In 1956, Allen Ginsberg was thirty years old, working in market research and living in Berkeley, California. Born in New Jersey, the renowned Beat poet-to-be had traveled farther than cross-country to get to California. In 1953, he left New York City, where he had attended Columbia University, stopping first in Washington DC, Miami, Havana, and Guanajuato, Mexico, before arriving in San Francisco in 1954 and moving to Berkeley the following year. The journey gave him an expansive view of the United States, both from within and without, which he channeled into his 1956 poem “America.”
In “America,” Ginsberg excoriated the prevailing political climate while revealing his own beliefs. The poem churns between violent indictment and unapologetic confession — “America when will we end the human war? / Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb”; “America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies / America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.” Jonah Raskin, a biographer of Ginsberg, calls “America” “probably the most effective of the overtly political poems that [Ginsberg] wrote in the wake of Howl.”
Ginsberg had performed “Howl” for the first time just three months earlier, making his public debut in a career that would win him the National Book Award, the Robert Frost Medal, and an American Book Award. Throughout that time — indeed, from his childhood to his death — the poet was shaped by the politics of the Left.
“I Used to be a Communist”
Ginsberg was born in Newark in 1926 to a mother and father that he described as communist and socialist, respectively. His mother Naomi had left Russia following the 1905 Revolution and emigrated to the United States, where she met Ginsberg’s father Louis, a poet and a school teacher. The household was progressive enough that when Ginsberg left for Columbia University in 1943, he intended to become a labor lawyer.
But during college, Ginsberg struggled with the politics of his childhood. Part of this involved acknowledging his ambitions as a poet, rather than a lawyer, but it was also influenced by the reactionaries he found in the lecture halls of Columbia. Not only was the university generally conservative — “radicalism was out of fashion with the faculty in the 1940s,” Raskin writes — but Ginsberg’s mentor, English professor Lionel Trilling, was vociferously anticommunist. A radical in the 1930s, Trilling had since switched sides, attacking “liberalism” — by which he meant Marxism and communism — with bombastic statements like “when a man does begin to court the liberal-democratic ideal, it is either a sign or the beginning of spiritual collapse in his work.” While his mentor’s influence complicated Ginsberg’s politics, it did not lead the poet to completely abandon his beliefs, as he read Marx and Lenin alongside T. S. Eliot, a favorite of Trilling.
The men Ginsberg met on the streets of Manhattan were in some ways the same as Columbia’s faculty. By 1944, he had befriended Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Lucien Carr, all cynics about socialism, if not vocal anticommunists. The three had an enormous impact on Ginsberg. It was in their company that the poet first openly embraced his homosexuality, began developing his unique writing style, and came to celebrate alternatives to mainstream US society that at the time were aggressively ignored, if not actively denigrated. But like Trilling, they also complicated Ginsberg’s politics. “There is only one man who can be more deadly a bore than a Communist,” Ginsberg wrote in 1944. “That is the man who was once a Communist and is sorry for it.”
Unfortunately, Ginsberg’s sense of self around this time was also rapidly deteriorating. He was reading the fascist Oswald Spengler and putting on a racist, sexist facade. Despite coming from a Jewish family, he wrote antisemitic graffiti in class and was thrown out of school for it. He eventually returned and graduated late in 1948, but spent the next four years struggling, once being arrested and spending time in New York State Psychiatric Institute as a patient. After getting out, he worked in marketing research and tried to date women. He also missed the funeral of his mother, who had been institutionalized for years.
With little left to lose, Ginsberg decided to make his roundabout trip west after reading an article in Harper’s ridiculing San Francisco for its “New Culture of Sex and Anarchy.”
The Beat Poet
From the epic labor struggles of the 1930s to the contemporary bohemian art scene, San Francisco in 1954 was a paragon of radicalism. Ginsberg took in iconoclastic films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One, enjoyed the fruits of sexual liberation, and befriended local poets who were both artistic and political — from Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, both members of the Industrial Workers of the World, to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the anarchist founder of City Lights Bookstore and publisher of Howl and Other Poems.
The influence of this new environment, along with the escalation of the Cold War, came through in Ginsberg’s poetry — including “Howl,” which he composed from 1955 to 1956. The years preceding the poet’s best-known work saw not only McCarthyism’s repressive rise, but the launch of the nation’s first openly anticommunist international conflict, the Korean War. As the Cold War continued to reach new, apocalyptic heights and the counterculture bloomed in response, “Howl” took on greater significance. Ginsberg seems prescient in those lines in which he describes his “angelheaded hipsters”:
who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind nothing but the shadow of
dungarees and the lava and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago,
who reappeared on the West Coast investigating the FBI in beards and shorts with big
pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incomprehensible leaflets,
who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of
who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing
while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the
Staten Island ferry also wailed …
Ginsberg delivered his first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. It is now widely considered the moment that launched his career, winning him attention, acclaim, and even some scorn as one of the most prominent figures of the Beat Generation, a literary movement that rejected postwar US materialism and formality in favor of spirituality and experimentation.
Ginsberg applied the unique style he developed in “Howl” to other subjects, including his mother in “Kaddish” and contemporary politics in “America.” Similarly, the politics he evoked in “Howl” would find voice time and time again. While he is outspoken about his political views in “America,” he is more subtle in “Kaddish.” Dedicated to his mother, the communist who had fled a failed revolution in Russia only to die institutionalized in the United States, the poem blends the personal and the political:
Dreaming back thru life, Your time — and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment — the flower burning in the Day — and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or
a crumpled bed that never existed —
like a poem in the dark — escaped back to Oblivion …
“I Feel Sentimental About the Wobblies”
Ginsberg would remain a critic of US society and politics throughout his life, but he didn’t seek Soviet-style communism in the United States. He believed that the worst things that many Americans criticized about the Soviet Union — the conformity, the secret police, the gulags — were about as true of the United States. And, in 1965, he learned that some of the things he hated most about the United States were also true of Communist countries, when he was deported from Cuba and Czechoslovakia for agitating for gay rights and being a “degenerate.”
Still, Ginsberg never became a reactionary. He visited Saigon in 1963 and understood that US imperialism had brought the autocratic Ngo Dinh Diem to power in increasingly revolutionary South Vietnam. For the rest of his life, he remained an outspoken critic of US imperialism, whether it meant opposing the Shah of Iran or the Nicaraguan Contras. Up until the year before his death in 1997, he was condemning US meddling in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.
Ginsberg’s condemnation of the United States’ international machinations dovetailed with his domestic activism. He played a leading role in the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where he attempted to calm the rampaging police, before being tear-gassed himself. In 1978, he was arrested for blocking a train servicing a nuclear weapons production facility outside of Denver. Even at the age of sixty-two, he managed to get wrapped up in the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riot outside of his apartment in New York City.
For the United States, Ginsberg wanted something different. He vaguely described it as a “shift to cooperative socialism” and the “abandonment (perhaps) of money itself.” Maybe his poem “America” paints the clearest picture of his preferred society, one of generosity, freedom, and transformation:
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?