Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Allen Ginsberg's "America"(s)/Reading Readings of the Poem

The above clip is a rendering of Allen Ginsberg's rather sober reading of his famous standup poem, "America," with music by Tom Waits. It is ruminative, almost depressive, and a stark contrast to the earlier, notorious readings of it in Berkeley in 1956, in which Ginsberg plays the clown dissident. It becomes a "He Do the Police in Different Voices" for the post-war set. The contrast is striking, and is suggestive of how there is not a single "America," but many "Americas." The poem continues to proliferate.

This is what I wrote for the Poetry Foundation piece on poetry as news, called "From Reznikoff to Public Enemy":
"America" is a good example of how a poem can deliver the news of an era while providing a lens into the past. In this case, Allen Ginsberg evokes both his own historical present, the mid-1950s, and the radical zeitgeist of the 1910s–30s (referencing the Wobblies, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Scottsboro Boys). In so doing, Ginsberg’s "America" becomes a monument to its own historical moment, with the mainstream’s outsized fears of Communist Russia ("her want to take our cars out of our garages") and his own clownish Beat resistance to that culture ("It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again"). A poem of rich tonalities and voices, alternately hilarious and angry, "America" feels more liberating than
"Howl," and it’s a lot more fun to read (and hear). The famous recording of "America," available in Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs and in Poetry on Record, shows Ginsberg at his comic best, intoxicated in all the right ways, and the audience leaning into every word, ready to recognize themselves and laugh.

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