...and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. - John 8:31
In 1956 Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was published, sending shock waves through the literary world, and leading many a hasty critic to make a contribution to the widespread scathing reviews, many to be later recanted. Part of the impact of Howl, aside from its newness and raw power was the media hype which surrounded it, partially because it was labeled obscene. In San Francisco, where Howl and Other Poems was ruled not obscene in a series of hearings, Kenneth Rexroth gave his testimony, defending Howl by linking it to the prophetic tradition:
"The simplest term for such writing is prophetic, it is easier to call it that than anything because we have a large body of prophetic writing to refer to. There are the prophets of the Bible, which it resembles in purpose and language and in subject matter...There is the denunciation of evil and a pointing out of the way so to speak. That is prophetic literature."
(Rexroth, Ferllinghetti, 50)
Howl is the centerpiece of the book, and is generally considered to among Ginsberg's finest poems, and though the passage of time has rendered it a period piece in its tone, language and youthful, rebellious vibrancy, it remains as Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, "the most significant single long poem to be published in this country since World War II..." (On the Poetry of A.G., 43) He goes on to emphasize the complementary nature of the poems in the book, singling out America as especially in step with Howl: "Ginsberg wrote his best defense of Howl in another poem called America." (Ferlinghetti, 44) America specifically spells out some of the poet's arguments against the direction that American culture was taking, arguments which exist in a more roundabout manner in the labyrinths of Howl. M.L. Rosenthal places the two poems together as a parallel pair:
"The two most striking pieces in Allen Ginsberg's Pamphlet Howl and Other Poems - the long title piece and America - are sustained shrieks of frantic defiance. The themes are struck off clearly in the opening lines of each..."
The first lines of the two poems give a similar feeling of the poet's disillusionment, but as they progress, America becomes more melancholic, retrospective, introspective, humorous, measured, and thoughtful, while Howl continues its spontaneous, rhythmic wrath. Both America and Howl share a prophetic voice, that is, the poet is speaking out against his culture, and puts forth hope for its salvation. The first feature which strikes the reader as being related to the Old Testament prophetic tradition is Ginsberg's use of repetition to build tension toward a climax. This borrowed technique is perhaps indicative only of its usefulness and compatibility with the poet's own voice, message and method of breath-lines, for Ginsberg clearly states that his debt to the Old Testament is a case of just another source for the construction of meaningful, prophetic poetry in this dangerous time.
"But no poets have ever had to confront the destruction of the entire world like we have to...It's so incredible as a subject that you can't even go back to the biblical prophets for a model to say, 'Well, I think I'll write a poem like Jeremiah now...'"
(Ginsberg, Craft Interview, 72)
Like the Old Testament prophets, there is a very definite element of political purpose in America, reducing the Cold War mentality of the time to the fundamental silliness that it was, in the light of utter destruction of the entire world. He bluntly tells America to "Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb." (Ginsberg, Collected Poems, 146) and later delivers a humorous parody of communist paranoia:
"America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take out cars from out our garages."
Speaking of the political element of his poetry, Ginsberg here places himself within a tradition of political poetry:
"Well, that's been traditional in the high, academic poetry, as Shelly, Blake, and Whitman proposed through their poems. That continues in this American apocalypse time in Robert Duncan's passages, in my poem America, in Burroughs' prose poetry books describing poetically the characteristics of an advanced police state."
(Ginsberg, Nimrod, 27)
Police state or not, Ginsberg takes no sides in the mundane fortunes of governments or political movements, at least in 1959 when he wrote:
"...my poetry, is Angelical Ravings, and has nothing to do with dull materialistic vagaries about who should shoot who...Who denies the music of the spheres denies poetry, denies man, and spits on Blake, Shelly, Christ and Buddha. Meanwhile have a ball. The universe is a flower. America will be discovered..."
(Ginsberg, Notes, 83)
Ginsberg bats around the Americans and the Russians in America in a playful manner like a cat playing with a mouse, until the ludicrousness of the Cold War becomes apparent through humor. What Ginsberg is really interested in is the soul of America, the collective soul of all its people, which is being poisoned by the official Cold War diseased paranoia. Capitalism and communism are political and economic constructions built by people, and are "below" the realm of the prophet's eternal vision. The prophet must speak the language of the people, however, to hold up the world to ridicule and to show the people the error of their ways.
All of this is neither here nor there, though there are these obvious correlations between the Old Testament prophets and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg in form, tone, political purpose, and poetic voice. Most of Ginsberg's biblical influences come second-hand, though, through other poets and philosophers, most notably through William Blake. The actual correspondences between Blake's America: A Prophecy and Ginsberg's America are very few, and so it is in the spirit of the works that we must look to find some kind of parallel between them.
The ultimate connection between any two poets who claim to be prophets is that each believes that he has come into contact with Eternal knowledge through inspiration in moments of mystical illumination. If there is sanity in these men, then they did experience something, that is to say, they did experience a state of consciousness in which the nature of existence has been apprehended in a different, perhaps truer light. This is not simply a matter of cognition, or of hallucination, but rather of a transformation of the poet's being, of his spiritual self. The revelation is not strictly a visual or audio, sensual experience (though these are the only means through which the poet can describe it) but rather a "light" which shines upon the soul itself, the senses' illumination being but a reflection of the soul's.
If Blake and Ginsberg did, as they claim, write under inspirational guidance in moments of prophetic insight, we should be able to find some kind of common "prophetic thread" between their "prophetic" works, especially if they deal with the same subject: America. The source of this prophetic connection need not be anything so esoteric and definite as Los. It may simply be the human mind and being in a state where limitations on the senses disappear, where the soul sees and hears without recourse to the senses of the body. We will use Blake's somewhat esoteric system of symbols, however, since in their Blakean usage they serve to represent eternal entities, forces or states, each with its own relationship to each other and to Blake's Bible-based cosmogony.
Having dispensed with the most obvious connections between Ginsberg and the prophetic tradition, we will now engage in an experimental exploration of sorts. We will superimpose Blakean thought on America in an effort to see some kind of harmony beyond coincidence. The strategy is to look at America through the hypothetical eyes of William Blake; the hope is that this perspective will shed some light on both America: A Prophecy and America. Ginsberg's America begins:
"America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can't stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don't feel good don't bother me.
I won't write my poems until I'm in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I'm sick of your insane demands."
Ginsberg's original notation of America in his journals uses the word "America" as a repetitive beat for rhythmic buildup:
"America I've given you all and now I'm nothing -
America when will you end the war?
America when will you be angelic?
America when will you take off your clothes and be human?
America when will you give me back my mother?
America when will you give me back my love?
America when will you look at yourself through the grave?
America when will you be worthy of your million Christs?
America what's wrong? Why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
America when will you stop destroying human souls? Your soul my soul?
America when will you send me a lover?
I Allen Ginsberg Bard out of New Jersey take up the laurel tree cudgel from Whitman."
(Ginsberg, Journals, 91)
Most of the original notation ends up in the poem America except, most notably, the last line, in which he calls himself Bard. The final poem is much longer and more elaborate than his initial notes for the poem. In the final version, the changing point of view gives a different sense of Ginsberg's fear for America's soul, and his position as Bard is not a constant in the poem. The brief repetitive call to America for answers becomes a long conversation with America, with the poet, like Whitman, becoming America in his imagination. Also, the straight-faced serious disgust and alienation becomes satirical humor as Ginsberg takes on the persona of America and proceeds to engage in self-evaluation, emptying America's pockets, so to speak, of its most embarrassing secrets and insane fears.
The first thing we must make clear in understanding America in terms of Blake, and specifically America: A Prophecy, is that Ginsberg sees America as dominated by Molech, which is roughly equivalent to Urizen. Molech is mentioned in the Old Testament as a god who demanded child sacrifices from believers. To Blake, Abraham's substitution of the ram for his son Isaac as a sacrifice represents the end of the reign of Molech in Hebraic culture. For Ginsberg, Molech is a god of destruction and oppression, who destroys America's children with the "death" of materialism and war. Although Ginsberg's Molech is seen as the military-industrial complex which destroys the children of America, this must not be confused with America itself. Molech reigns in America just as Urizen reigns in Blake's Generative world, but the world itself has the potential for salvation, for freedom from these evil forces. When Ginsberg speaks to, or becomes, America, he is treating America as an entity with a soul, pointing out the corrosive evils which control and envelop her. Ginsberg makes a clear distinction between the "Satanic State" and the soul of America which it poisons and oppresses. In 1969, Ginsberg wrote:
"...in the Beginning the Word (Sophia Mother Wisdom Knowledge Tirzah) flash-imagined all Aeons down to Jehovah's Garden. The Serpent was the Caller of The Great Call, disguised messenger from the Abyss of Light, according to the Mandean Gnostic heresy suppressed around 313 A.D. Rome when Constantine Emperor (CIA) accepted Christ took over Religion & suppressed revolutionary hip gnostic Illumination of the fake Authority of the Material Universe itself. The Roman State coopted religion at council of Nicea & burned all Dissenting metaphysical doctrines. This established the Satanic State, presidently headed by Richard Nixon, Jehovah in disguise forgetting to whom he is beholden..."
(Ginsberg, To Young and Old..., 23)
In other words, Urizen/Jehovah as formulated by Blake, rules the American State. That Ginsberg adopts this gnostic, Blakean view is crucial to understanding America, because the America he speaks to is the soul of America, and the America he denounces is the "Satanic State." This distinction places the entire framework of the poem in a Blakean light to begin with, because he is operating in a cosmogony which, though personal, owes its sources and ideas to the Bible, and to Blake's interpretation of the Bible.
The first line of America echoes a line in Blake's Four Zoas, the same line we have used in out illumination of the Preludium of America: A Prophecy. The key phrase is "Now I am nothing".
"O, I am weary! lay thine hand upon me or I faint,
"I faint beneath these beams of thine,
"For thou hast touched my five senses & they answer'd thee.
"Now I am nothing & I sink
"And on the bed of silence sleep till thou awakest me."
In Blake's system, cosmic eternal events occur in a vast cycle of Man from Creation to Apocalypse, and also on the microcosmic scale within the life of the individual human being. The soul of America is asleep, for the soul of America is representative of the soul of Man, Albion, asleep upon the Rock of Ages. This is also a universal state expressed in the souls of individuals, who are trapped in the illusion of space and time. In his fallen state, Man's four constituent parts, the Four Zoas, are in a state of disharmony and internal conflict for control over the soul of Man. The conflicts between the Four Zoas in this world are manifestations of Eternal conflicts outside of space and time, for time and space are illusions which create the illusion that each person's life is separate.
With this brief review of Blake's ideas, we can put forth a rather odd proposition: that America is an expression of Los concerning Albion. It is a microcosmic composition (in space and time) by an inspired poet which is representative of an Eternal event. This Eternal event is the same one depicted in America: A Prophecy when the Bard ceased his song: Enitharmon, the Bard's Emanation, inspiration, and creation, seizes the harp and tries to awaken Los. America is Albion, the fallen Man, but within Albion are the Four Zoas, also in their fallen state, among whom is Los. Los is "dead" in America, destroyed by separation from Enitharmon. Ginsberg, then, is Enitharmon, trying to awaken Los and ultimately Albion from sleep.
Ginsberg becomes nothing, having given all to America, that is, as Enitharmon, he has faded under Los' prophetic light, faded to nothing as he gives everything to America, to revive its sleeping soul with a prophetic song. Line seven of America says, "I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind." This is Enitharmon saying: "And on the bed of silence I sleep till thou awakest me." Ginsberg will not be in his right mind until America (Los, Albion) awakens and restores his strength, making him sane in the eyes of mankind. The awakening America corresponds with the awakening of Albion in Eternity, when the Four Zoas regain their rightful places in harmony around the throne of God.
"I can't stand my own mind." is equivalent to Enitharmon's faintness under Los' beams as they touch her senses. The burden and brilliance of prophecy is too much for Ginsberg/Enitharmon - it seems like insanity, for he is separate from Los, the Eternal Prophet, who is "dead" in America. This is confusing, because if Los is "dead," then how can Ginsberg claim to be the Bard, to speak prophetic words? Again, the statement-events in America are manifestations of Eternal events. Blake could tell the story of Los' "death" even though he was supposedly inspired by Los, because the moment of prophetic composition/illumination involves a piece of Eternal truth or Eternal knowledge entering this world through a human being, from the Eternal Prophet Los; that truth or knowledge may take the form of a mythical tale which represents things Eternal as mythical symbolic characters, among whom may be Los himself. Ginsberg told no such tales, yet he did write while under the same "prophetic" influence, giving a separate expression of the same event by taking on the persona of Enitharmon at one point, and of America (Los) at another. Los is "dead" in America, then, until Ginsberg awakens him, taking the "cudgel" from Whitman, America's last true link to Los. In America Ginsberg first must awaken Los, the Eternal Prophet, to become the Bard of America, in order to become one with the soul of America as Whitman had done, and ultimately to awaken America to liberty and Eternity.
Remember how this whole passage from The Four Zoas relates to the Preludium to America: A Prophecy: the moment the Bard ceas'd his song is the moment of his silence, or death, the moment of the departure of his Emanation. The silence of Los in America since Whitman is this time of separation. In America Enitharmon re-awakens Los, establishing himself (Ginsberg) as the new prophet of America. (He is both Los and Enitharmon, since they are two halves of the same entity; to the artist his creations are his Emanations.) Remember also that the Bard in America: A Prophecy falls into his sleep of silence indirectly because of the rise of Orc. In America revolution is implicit in Ginsberg's prophetic stance as denunciator and advocate of change. The last line of the poem when seen in our Blakean light becomes a promise by the poet that he will be working for revolutionary liberation of America's soul.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
Aside from the subversion of a mainstream American colloquial phrase to include a reference to his homosexuality, it also represents the poet's intention to put his energies into the Orc cycle for the apocalyptic liberation of America through revolution.
As we have seen, this experiment has so far netted a framework in which Ginsberg is roughly analogous to Los and Enitharmon, which together constitute time and space, poet and poem, Bard and inspiration in this fallen world. After the first line, which places Ginsberg's voice in his Blakean universe, a strange line occurs, which did not exist in the original draft of America.
"America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956."
This is a statement by Ginsberg not only of his financial status at the time of the poem's composition, but also of the status of America at the same time. The most obvious relationship to Blake's system is the number twenty-seven. In Milton, Blake refers to the twenty-seven churches of the fallen world, which mankind must pass through before the Last Judgement, which occurs at the end of the cycle -- the twenty-eighth church. Like the Orc cycle, the twenty-seven churches revolve repeatedly in a cycle.
"The Mundane Shell is a vast Concave Earth, an immense
Harden'd shadow of all things upon our Vegetated Earth,
Enlarg'd into dimension & deform'd into indefinite space.
In Twenty-seven Heavens and all their Hells, with Chaos
And ancient Night & Purgatory. It is a cavernous Earth
Of labyrinthine intricacy, twenty-seven folds of opakeness...
Satan & Adam are States Created into Twenty-seven Churches..." (Blake 521)
This numerological significance is derived by Blake from his interpretation of the Bible. To Blake, four and seven are numbers of Eden, or Eternity, four being the number of rivers in Eden and the number of Zoas around the throne of God; and seven being the seven "angels of the presence," the seven eyes of God. (Blake 521) Seven times four is twenty-eight, the end of the Mundane cycle and the return to Eternity. On the other hand, three and all its multiples are of the fallen world, and are hence evil. There are three dimensions of space (height, depth and breadth) and three dimensions of time (past, present and future) which together form this existence of illusion. Hence three squared yields nine, and three cubed equals twenty-seven, which is the number of "churches" in this material world of illusion. Five is also an "evil" number to Blake because the fallen man has five senses.
Ginsberg's two dollars are significant as well, for they are the two centuries of America's existence, the two century's since the last rise of Orc. To Ginsberg, the dollar bill also represents America itself, as can be seen in American Change, written in 1958. In this poem, Ginsberg is literally looking through his pocket change while sailing over the Atlantic on the S.S. United States, returning home. He sees in American money images of America, unintentionally prophetic images of what America was, is, and is becoming. He describes a buffalo nickel in terms which connect America's past with Old Testament spiritual history. He describes the Indian on the obverse side as:
"- held in my palm, the head of the feathered Indian, old Buck Roger eagle eyed face, a gash of hunger in the cheek
gritted jaw of the vanished man begone like a Hebrew with hairlock combed down the side - O Rabbi Indian"
He describes the other side of the nickel in similar terms, the nickel taking on significance as a microcosmic symbol of American history, a small disc which encompasses the prophet in Eternity.
" ...with shaggy buffalo on reverse, hump backed little tail incurved, head butting against the rondure of Eternity,
cock forelock below, bearded shoulder muscle folded below muscle, head of prophet, bowed..."
It is the dollar bill that is America, however, because America worships the "almighty dollar" it being the currency of the Satanic State, but also paradoxically the symbol of America's original vision: the unity of free men and women as one in liberty.
"Ahhh! Washington again, on the Dollar, same poetic black print, dark
words, The United States of America, innumerable numbers
R956422481 One Dollar This Certificate is Legal Tender )tender!) for all debts public and private
My God My God why have you forsaken me
Ivy Baker Priest Series 1953 F
and over, the Eagle, wild wings outspread, halo of the Stars encircled by puffs of smoke & flame -
a circle the Masonic Pyramid, the sacred Swedenborgian Dollar
America, bricked up to the top, & floating surreal above
the triangle of holy outstaring Eye sectioned out of the air, shining light emitted from the eyebrowless triangle - and a desert of cactus, scattered all around, clouds afar,
this being the Great Seal of our Passion, Annuit Ceptis, Novus Ordo Seclorum,
the whole surrounded by green spiderwebs designed by T-Men to prevent foul counterfeit -
(Ginsberg, Collected Poems, 264)
Washington was of course a major character in the American Revolution, and hence in Blake's America: A Prophecy, as a vehicle for Orc. Blake was unaware of Washington's fate on the worshipped American dollar when he wrote in a letter to William Hayley in 1804:
"I suppose an American would tell me that Washington did all that was done before he was born, as the French now adore Bonaparte and the English our poor George; so the Americans will consider Washington as their god."
In Death to Van Gogh's Ear! (1957) Ginsberg states clearly his position as a prophetic artist working against the Satanic standard of money: "Poet is Priest/Money has reckoned the soul of America." (Ginsberg, Collected Poems, 167)
Later in the same poem, he goes on to link money with Rehab, the Whore of Babylon, who we have seen in the illustrations to Blake's America: A Prophecy.
"Machinery of a mass electrical dream: A war-creating Whore of Babylon bellowing over Capitols and Academies:
Money! Money! Money! shrieking mad celestial money of illusion!..."
(Ginsberg, Collected Poems, 170)
In line 12 of America, Ginsberg asks, "America why are your libraries full of tears?" The tears, it turns out, are Ginsberg's. Here he addresses America directly:
"I'm addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library"
Time here is not simply a symbol of the mass media mediocrity, nor is it a handy way for Ginsberg to use a capitalized "Time" in the poem, referring to Los, who is time, just as Enitharmon is space. In line 24 of the poem, Ginsberg says, "I refuse to give up my obsession." As Enitharmon, Ginsberg is obsessed by Time (Los in his fallen form), so he cries in their separation in the fallen world. Time, of course, is am illusion, a fabrication of this fallen world, whether we see it as Los or as the popular weekly magazine. Ginsberg cries in the basement of the library when he reads Time Magazine because what he is really reading is, on one level, the illusory events of fallen human history portrayed in palatable, isolated, meaningless, emotionally bankrupt events; and on another level, he is seeing Los -- Time -- the Eternal Prophet, distorted in his fallen state. The poem continues:
"It's always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious.
Movie producers are serious. Everybody's serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again."
Becoming America, Ginsberg is like Enitharmon realizing her oneness with Los -- that they are actually the same entity. He is here actually taking on the persona of America, of Albion, of all mankind, much as Whitman had done. The false standards of Time Magazine, the fallen world's illusory expectations, alienate Ginsberg (Enitharmon/Los) and he realizes that this is not the true America (Man) but only illusion. It is he who is the true America, for he can see the true state of human existence.
As America, Ginsberg humorously apes Cold War paranoia using Hollywood's version of American Indian speech rhythms. Speaking of Russia, Ginsberg as America says:
"Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader's Digest. Her wants auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations. That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers. Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help. He ends the poem with a return to seriousness and a return to his own self again.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
(Ginsberg, Collected Poems, 149)
In Death to Van Gogh's Ear, he refers to his own poetry as "silly" because that is what it appears to be to America. Again we have the reversed distinction between what appears to be insanity or silliness in the fallen world, and what really is insanity or silliness: "History will make this poem prophetic and its awful silliness a hideous spiritual music". The humor in America likewise is a silliness which the test of time will prove to be prophetic. The implication, then, is that the degree to which one sees Ginsberg's poetry as silly or insane is the degree to which one has sunk into the fallen world.
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