Alllen Ginsberg

“America” is just a single poem. It is joined on this list by another piece from the same collection – the title poem from the 1956 work Howl, which inspired art, rebellion and political repression that defined a generation. By rights, the whole book oughta be here. But it’s not, given the parameters I set myself with this list. Only those texts that are most culturally-significant – those that we remember or those which, though forgotten, echo in important ways that would be understood by most folks in the English-speaking “west”. And so, while some poetry appears on this list in book-form – Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads for example, which is known as a whole work more than as individual poems –  Allen Ginsberg’s Howl-the-collection must give way to “Howl” the poem and this, his “America”.

“America” is rage and sadness and a declaration of not so much of war but withdrawal from the state of democracy-turned-empire. The Cold War and Jim Crow, Rockwell-esque mythologies about freedom and the pursuit of happiness, capitalism and consumer culture, sexual repression, the drug laws, not only a history but a potential that still breathes somewhere under the weight of the commerce-war machine – “America” is apology, demand, manifesto, promise.

Allen Ginsberg rose to prominence as a central figure – with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, among others – of the Beat Generation of the 50s. In the 60s he continued to appear on the frontlines of cultural and political resistance, an active Viet Nam War resister, a drug activist, a queer activist, insipiration to and ally of Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman’s Yippies. But his impact was not only about political subversion – in literary terms, culturally, Ginsberg was hugely influential, developing a poetry that experimented with form and rhythm in new ways, that sought to bring together modernism, romanticism, jazz. By the 1970s, he’d become something of a literary institution, inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and swamped with prizes and accolades. The social and political upheaval of the previous decades had worked a curious magic – not that America the country/ culture/ institution was any less the beast Ginsberg had railed against; rather, Ginsberg had given voice to something inside that beast. The poem had reflected, “It occurs to me that I am America”. And within a couple of decades, America knew it.