Seeing America in a Clothesline: Allen Ginsberg Revisited

From the first time I read “Howl” as a teenager until the most recent the other night, I’ve found this launched rocket of prophetic imagery and generational solidarity to be a thrilling invitation to write for myself. Somehow, Ginsberg made it look easy, as if all you need do is unleash your own furies in their boldest, most utopian, and hallucinatory form. His “hydrogen jukebox” sounds so appealing to play on that I’m surprised that so little poetry sounds like “Howl,” as if everyone has scaled back their ambitions in favor of plainspoken rants or overly informed irony. Yet the more I learn about “Howl” the more I appreciate how crafted it is, how Ginsberg had his explosion of brilliance two months after his twenty-ninth birthday because he’ d already spent half of his life almost desperate to become a great writer. As a child, he’d been enchanted by hearing his father, a poet himself, read Milton and Wordsworth aloud. At Colombia he’d been a voracious reader who learned the English literary tradition from Lionel Trilling, the great books dean of the era. Before Walt Whitman became his obvious godfather, T.S. Eliot had deeply impressed Allen Ginsberg in ways that can be found in “Howl.” Though he sat down to his typewriter one day in his San Francisco apartment in August 1955 and composed the first draft in a visionary fever that was a bold departure from his previous poetry, Ginsberg was hardly an amateur. He’d finished an unpublished manuscript and filled journals with reading notes, poetic lines, haiku, conversational snippets, and whatever else caught his fancy. (The journal line that got “Howl” started was “I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned.”) He’d befriended William Carlos Williams, whose stepped, three line stanzas he initially emulated

I saw the best minds of my generation
…..generation destroyed by madness
……….starving, mystical, naked,

before switching to the long Whitmanesque lines

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked

Notice also the switch from “mystical” to “hysterical,” a change that Ginsberg considered key to his revisions of the poem, which continued for a year after that first magical sitting. Somewhere along the way, perhaps encouraged by Ginsberg himself, he came to represent the spontaneous poet for whom the fresh utterance is superior to anything hashed over and bent into form. Spontaneity may be essential to discovering a newness in one’s work, but it need not be divorced from studious revisions or deep immersion in the poetry you admire. For half a dozen years, I’ve had fun concocting my own “hydrogen jukebox” poetry that heightens the language as well as the story, but I’ve learned that it’s not as easy as it looks. That crazy blast of inspiration takes preparation.

Someday I may attempt my own “Howl.” Or maybe there are fragments in what I’ve already written. But there is another Ginsberg poem that I’ve openly emulated, “America,” written in the aftermath of “Howl.” Again, it was culled from his notebooks. It seems casual and spontaneous, but had a year’s worth of tinkering before Ginsberg was satisfied with his final draft. Unlike “Howl,” much of which has a private prophetic intensity, “America” reads like performance piece, a standup tragedy routine addressed to this great and fucked-up country of ours. It’s a litany of hopes and complaints that gathers force through Ginsberg’s funny and heartfelt choice of details, many of which may be outdated but could readily be replaced by the latest from Fox News and The Nation. But it’s not a poem of volatile inventiveness. It doesn’t have the “hydrogen jukebox.” It appears in the Pocket Poets edition of Howl that I first bought as a teen and have bought again several times since, but it’s not a poem that I remembered very well until it became central to my life.

Back in 2004, I did my best to ignore the Presidential race while living in the Adirondacks for five months in an off-the-grid lake house with a generator to power my computer and two bars worth of reception for my cell phone from a thruway tower miles away. I took a sabbatical from reading The New York Times, listened to Vermont Public Radio, and checked my e-mails once a week at the nearest library a twenty minute drive downhill by Lake Champlain. Age hadn’t mellowed my reactions to politics. To the contrary, George Bush’s smug indifference infuriated me, as did the press’s deference to his genial friendliness, especially on NPR which spoke about him–as it spoke about everything–with such amiable reassurance. I also feared that wooden John Kerry wasn’t headed for victory. So I caught as little of the news as I could while on this extended writing retreat. On election day I returned home to Woodstock to vote and went to bed when the early returns in Pennsylvania looked promising. Alas, the fantasy wasn’t to be. I woke up to another Bush term and took consolation by hiking Mount Wittenberg with a friend. At the start a dripping fog hung in the trees, a fair statement about life. But as we began descending from the summit the season changed as an arctic front ushered in a brilliant blue sky that crystallized the mountain views for miles around. We put on our hats, invigorated by this premonition of winter. No matter how bad our politics, nature abides. Even the balsam firs smelled sharper in the cold. The mountains bring you back to the essence of life, the hardiness of the trees and the rocks and the roots, the physical satisfaction of hiking and scrambling up and down outcroppings, the old fashioned freedom of being in the wilderness that’s so much more enduring that whatever hysteria fills the news. The forest quiet holds the deeper truths of our place in the world. After the hike I lived with this sense of renewal–okay, call it denial–for a month until I read Allen Ginsberg’s “America” and knew I had to face my love/hate relationship with this country at last. I had to write my own “America,” an experience I likened to being in couple’s counseling with a country that could give me both Wittenberg Mountain and George Bush. Here’s what I learned:


I’ve read your in-flight magazines.
I’ve known some of your people, a few hundred,
maybe more. But on the summit of Mt. Ajo I ate lunch alone.

America, you should have seen me play in the desert below:
stick batting sausage-like links off teddybear cholla,
then reattaching them by their own cactus velcro;
or plucking yellow bell pepper-like fruits
from barrel cacti to sample javelinas’ cuisine;
or casting saguaro for cowboy cartoons,
one tall cactus throwing two short uppercuts,
another galloping bowlegged without leaving its trunk.

On the summit of Mt. Ajo I looked over three lands:
Arizona, Sonora, and the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation.
The Indians ran a barbed wire fence up ridges
and rock spires, their border against cattle and Whites.
The Whites left a summit box rusted and padlocked.
The lone cedar defended itself, weathered branches
raised like antlers from its sprawling evergreen shrub.
Three nations naked with desert.
One car pulling a mile of dust on the park road below.

America, do you know how good pump water tastes from a canteen?
A tin of smoked oysters? Saltines?
America, whoever invented gorp deserves the Medal of Honor,
especially for this mix of dried bananas, coconut flakes,
cashews, and miniature carob kisses.
I brushed crumbs off my hands for the lizard.

America, your vast sky was so quiet
moments before the metallic scouring
I’d heard twice that morning but now finally saw:
three fighter jets tightening circles,
flashing razors of sunlight, suddenly aiming
to collide, then missing by eye blinks.

America, I won’t deny it: I was thrilled by your dogfight.
The jets circled again, this time for the kill;
two flaming streamers shed by the target plane
flamed out into curlicue skywriting,
skywriting I couldn’t translate into words,
but it held for a minute as the sky’s only cloud.
Far from its signal flares, the target jet rejoined the two
and flew in arrowhead formation over the Reservation.

And that’s all I saw until opening night two months later in Baghdad.
And this story could end with unsettled feelings about empire,
but in America the story never really ends, now does it?

Off-trail I made a new route down from the saddle,
pausing to shake a flurry of seeds
from dried rattles on a century plant stalk,
then finding a cattle skull up to its eye sockets in sand.
I shook the skull clean, laid it teeth down
on a pedestal rock overlooking the desert plain
veined green by cactus-thick arroyos.

Down the loose slope my boots carved long slides,
as if skiing on sand. Then funneled
into a dry wash with pillow-smooth boulders,
I descended wary of rattlesnakes but surprised none.
Hopping and jumping down this natural jungle gym
for a thousand feet, I trusted sand traps
to be kind to my knees. How daring I grew,
sliding off boulders taller than myself, gamboling
like an overgrown boy. America,
I tell you, I was happy again.
What could beat this day in your mountains?
At bottom a saguaro waved a big hello.
A yellow-eyed thrasher sang whit-wheet!
from the crown of its cactus.

In the arroyo I took a fresh compass bearing.
Only two miles round a ridge buttress to my tent.
Yet topping a rise I spotted trash strewn amid cactus:
golden potato chip foil pinned on a prickly pear,
two plastic water jugs punctured by needles,
an orange soda can rolled next to a rodent hole,
white cardboard from a cookie packet
tucked in the crotch of a cholla.
Who did this? Some high school doper or drunk?
Then I read labels: “Aqua Purificada,”
“Fanta Naranga,” “Cremes de Vainilla.”
The diet of illegals crossing forty miles at night
to avoid Border Patrol Jeep Cherokees.

America, you follow me everywhere.

Meanwhile, north of me in the Hudson Valley, the slam poet Elizabeth Gordon has used “America” as the model for an homage to her adopted city of Cohoes, an old brick mill town still far in spirit from the gentrification across the river in Troy. Her book, Love Cohoes, lives up to its title. It’s full of spunk and hard luck humor. “Are You Really Working Class? Test Yourself” commands one poem, which then quizzes you about washing up in a Walmarts bathroom, having bad teeth and unneutered dogs, and feeling shame over your shoes. Though rather new to slam poetry–a form that grants her three minutes on the clock, plus a ten second grace period–she’s of Irish heritage and clearly loves stories. Here’s her version of Ginsberg’s comic lament.

The Clotheslines of Cohoes
After Allen Ginsberg’s “America”

Cohoes, the ropes of your clotheslines are rotting!
Don’t you want to smell the Great Lakes in your sheets anymore Cohoes?
Don’t you want the sun to puff the turned-out pockets of your Dockers?
Dear Cohoes, we’re in trouble. Be honest: how many days before you open your utility bill?
Kim Jong Un wants your clotheslines Cohoes. Him wants them stiff iron posts, them balls of cement.

America’s got talent, talent and clothespins.

Lucille told me Cohoes how you used to tell stories as you hung our your clothes,
kids running through the arms of a whole building’s shirts, empty lines on wash day signaling trouble
bad trouble in the house.

I think tenements were little villages.
I think you’re a little ashamed Cohoes. I don’t get it, you’re so pretty.

Is it because they look like crosses two stories high? Is it because people say Cohoes is poor?

Oh Cohoes don’t listen to gossip! They do like crosses two stories high and we are poor!

That man who owns the laundromat? He’s not happy.

Don’t worry Cohoes. I’ll take in your clothes if it storms when you at Walmarts.
I won’t count holes in your socks or notice what brand undies you buy.
I don’t guess you buy the same brand Anthony Weiner buys but how can I ever know for sure Cohoes
if you let your clotheslines rot?

One clothespin holds two shoulders, remember? Jeans dry last. Pulleys squeaking as a load’s run out early
morning and back in afternoon or evening mark time much better than daytime TV.
Did you think of the bedridden and debilitatingly depressed when you let your clothesline rot Cohoes?

I tell you a secret: all Lucille’s sheets are white, white and perfect, sailboats at the starting line,
ironed clouds, clan robes in detox.

Oh Cohoes, I want to look up from doing dishes to see the prayer flags of your tank tops.
I want to feel guilty for sleeping when you’ve done two loads already.
I want to compete with you Cohoes.
I want to hang my clothes better and faster.

I want them to snap all dust bowl in the wind.
And I want to concede defeat to you Cohoes.
I want to say ‘You’re a better housewife than I am Cohoes.’

Show me the prom dress,
the cribsheet,
the tablecoth,
the robe washed for the last time.

Show me your stains and I’ll show you mine.

Meanwhile sunlight wicks the dew from every blade.
Meanwhile breezes dry the hair of the drowned and fill the shirt sails of the most desperate sailors.

I have a shawl I want to show you Cohoes.

Look at me when I’m loving you Cohoes!
My mother speaks to me from the grave.
She tells me you sell those dryers downriver,
sell those damn dryers to Yonkers.

Come outside Cohoes. Come on out.
Tell those chump squirrels–these ain’t no tightropes!
Tell National Grid–get your greed out of my pocket.
Tell your children–two shoulders one clothespin, thus.

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