Ginsberg's "America" vs. C.K.'s "United States"

I want to have lived through the 60s. Or even better — careful with your wishes — I want the 60s to have lived through me. I’ve always felt like a displaced flower-child; I love the music, I love the fashion (or lack thereof), I love the politics, the people in the streets. The coming Age of Aquarius. Marc Smith’s “hippy-dippy revolution.”

I finally went to San Francisco last summer and ate a burger at Red Robin. What the hell happened?

In the 60s, the times where a-changing, and Bob Dylan was spitting out so much hope it makes me cry. Now he’s doing Victoria Secret commercials; he used to care, but things have changed.

So what has changed, exactly? I could turn this into a long essay, but the answer is too obvious. First re-read Allen Ginsberg’s “America.” Then read, if you haven’t already, C.K. Williams’ “United States.”

Ginsberg’s America is angry, then sad, then funny (“[Russia] needs a Red Reader’s Digest. her wants our / auto plants in Siberia”); it’s nothing if not passionate. Despite what he says, you can’t avoid the sense that America does have a chinamen’s chance. “America when will you be angelic?” implies the possibility that it some day might be. What makes Ginsberg’s poem so powerful and lasting is its love for the country; America is a sick and silly child worth caring for.

Forty years later we have Williams, who spends half his time in France. The United States is a “rusting, decomposing hulk.” All that’s left is the memory of the monster it was, and “its pocking, / once pure paint.” Like Ginsberg, Williams enters his own poem, but here he’s just a ghost, as silent as he is sea-sick. All hope has been replaced by one of the most dreary final stanzas I’ve ever read:

“America’s mighty flagship” waits here,
to be auctioned, I suppose, stripped of anything
it might still have of worth, and towed away
and torched to pieces on a beach in Bangladesh.

Don’t get me wrong — I love C.K.; he’s merely reflecting the temper of the times, which is one of poetry’s great responsibilities. I just wish these were different times.

Man, I feel like I’m bad-mouthing some sap at his funeral.

Anyway, happy birthday to one of the must beautiful and influential documents in human history. And God bless that poet, Thomas Jefferson.

One thought on “Ginsberg's "America" vs. C.K.'s "United States"

  1. Hi Tim,
    I enjoyed this post — but it brings a question to mind: Can someone like Williams, who spends half his time outside the country, actually reflect the present-day American climate? By his prolonged presence outside of the country, he seems to be making himself something of an outsider. I’m not saying he’s necessarily incorrect in the observation, just raising the question of authenticity.

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