Index of contents
2. Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg
3. “Song of Myself” and “Howl”
5. Works cited
Allen Ginsberg was deeply influenced by Walt Whitman, especially by Whitman’s major work Song of Myself, which Ginsberg called “his declaration of his [Whitman’s] own nature”. They both were poets who tried to be a voice for the people, and who wanted to experience closeness in a time of growing distance between the people. Ginsberg describes Whitman’s aim, that he adopted, like this:
He wants a democratic love, and he wants an athletic love, he wants a love from men, too, and he also wants a love in the imagination… he’s looking for spare love, actually. Or spare affection. Or just spare openness, spare democracy.1
This paper will compare Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl concerning their intention as well as their big similarities of style and themes, even though there is nearly a century between their works. The lack of regularity and the many sexual metaphores in Whitmans lyric can also be seen in Ginsberg’s poem about his experiences with drug use and its consequences.
Like Whitman broke with the traditional rules of his time, Ginsberg and several of his writer friends did in the midth of the twentieth century. Pieces like “Howl”, Kerouac’s “On the Road” or William Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch” were a wake-up call for the American people to think about the development of the American society. Whitman, on his account, gave an overview about the diversity of the American people and wanted to support the Democratic beliefs with his epic poem. Thus, both wanted to change the traditional, comformist paths of American politics and human interaction. Both works shocked their surroundings profoundly.
This paper will place the Analysis of the two poems in the historic content and focus on criterias like style, intention and political background. Ginsberg and Whitman both used non-metric verses to support their cry for political and sexual freedom, and their main focus was the ‘male comradeship’ or ‘ahesiveness’, the love they seeked and could not find in their environment. For that reason this paper will first concentrate on Whitman and Ginsberg’s perspectives and surroundings to see why these two poets share a special bond.
2. Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg
Allen Ginsberg’s fondness of Walt Whitman can be found in many of his poems and essays. Naming Whitman and emphazising his poetry is a stylistic meaning that does not only work as an intertextual marker, but also underlines Ginsberg’s adoration for Whitman. A Supermarket in Cailfornia, a poem that belongs to Ginsberg’s Howl collection, describes the lyrical I wandering around a city at night, getting in a supermarket and asking itself questions about what Whitman would do or think on a lonely night like this:
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? (…)
We will walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely. /
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?2
Ginsberg himself described Whitman in one of his essays as a man “who began to define his own person, who began to tell his own secrets, who outlined his own body, and made an outline of his own mind, so other people could see it”.3 This quality to observe the world, describe what is wrong with it and the urge to change something by the means of literature was something they had in common. They both shared the deeply rooted belief that they, as poets, could be a voice for the American people. Both were disillusioned by what America had become. Let us first turn to Whitman, who had a “vision of America’s plenty and greatness”4. He was a true believer in America’s ideals – such as democracy, union, freedom, equality – but he was also disappointed with the failure of the American people to sustain these ideals.5 He stated in Democratic Vistas:
We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout ... The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. … Conversation is a mass of badinage… The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration. … [T]he one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain.6
This statement/quotation summarizes his observation of the political, linguistic, economic and sexual developments of the American people. To him literature lacks any kind of honesty because “the aim of all the litterateurs is to find something to make fun of”7. The topic of sexuality is dominated by inequality and confusion, and he observes a process of emotional estrangement among his fellow Americans. He claims that the industrialization destroyed the closeness, made the government become corrupt, or, as Allen Ginsberg puts it, made the “entire operation of democracy … into a paranoid, mechano-megalopolis congregation of freaks afeard of each other”.8 The pursiut of happiness, as it was stated in the Constitution, turned out to be the promise of gaining as much money as possible without any human interactions.
Furthermore, the “political turmoils that led to Civil War provides the context for Whitman’s emphasis on the democratic role of the poet in unifying a diverse country”.9 The American society fell apart because of disunionist actions, and especially those who supported and initiated these actions were being attacked by Whitman. For instance, James Buchanan and Millard Fillmore, both delegates and disunionists nominated for the eighteenth term, are described as sexually diseased and unethical, people like them as generally coming from filthy places and having, against all odds, the most power in society.10 To Whitman the politicians of his time are just “feeble” old men who speak “empty” words, and he seems not to be able to find a “single bold, muscular, young, well-informed, well-beloved, resolute American man, bound to do a man’s duty”.11
This disappointment in the status quo leads to his ideal idea of ‘Male comradeship’ which is basically derived from the “old” America Whitman loves and adores; true men, who know what they are, who can freely express their feelings, who stuck together and build a great democracy. Song of Myself is dominated by sexual metaphors, and homoerotic expressions can be found everywhere in his lyric and essays, which is something that Allen Ginsberg inspired for his literature as well. We will take a closer look at this during the analysis of the poems.
Whitman always relates the political body to the human body: “[P]arts of speech, organs of the body, and states of the Union relate to his metaphors regarding linguistic, sexual, and political intercourse; a discruption or impotence in any one element endangers the health and stability of all three components”.12 Thus, the potency of words and eloquency of speech is essential for democracy and living as a whole; which also relates to the potency of the male as well and the usage of “Man’s words”, as Whitman describes them. No gentleman or “lady-words”, but direct and “limber, lasting, fierce words”13 that stuck in the head of the readers.
“Whitman, the radical democrat, enlisted the rhetorical potency of blistering words to combat the corruption that he saw everywhere in American public life”.14 He tried to fight this development, wanted back his vision of the “spiritual magnitude”15 and great potential of the American society.
Allen Ginsberg, a century later, could only “bleakly comment on the death”16 of Whitman’s vision. Influenced by the Great Depression, World War II, and especially the 1950s America and the Cold War Period, the Beat Generation members wanted to get out of the conformity and materialistic overflow the post-war era provided. “They saw older American expressions of individuality being replaced by corporatism, strip malls, and tract housing”.17 The typical 1950s suburbs underlinded the development of emotional and physical distance between the people. Every American family seemed to be replaceable with another one, and from the outside it all seemed to be perfect, the house, the car, the job, the two kids and the dog. The beats, on the other hand, were not part of these conservative forms. Their literature wanted to rebel against all these conformist attitudes, against this lack of individualism that once was the aim of the founding of the United States. Ginsberg used free rhyme and obscene words, wanted to express his feelings and portray political turmoils rather than just write romantic poems without thinking about the development of society.
Ginsberg shared Whitmans belief in the male comradeship, and, being a homosexual himself in an environment that dismissed this kind of lifestyle, used many homosexual metaphors and themes in his poems, which will be shown in the discussion of the poem. Sexual equality between men and women as foundation of democracy was also one of his aims he expressed in his literature. He explained in his essay about Whitman the problematic of American politics:
As long as men are separate from each other and can’t even touch each other, then how can they collaborate together in building a political structure? All they can do is build what we have here in America, which is this giant, robotic, criminally-dominated city culture that actually not only exploits men but in which men exploit each other, exploit women and also exploit nature.18
It seems that this development what Whitman stated a centruy earlier did not improve with time. The “adhesiveness”, as Whitman put it, is not around in American society. Ginsberg himself described this deep connection as “glue to keep the people together” and “emotional bond”, because only then could democracy work; otherwise there are only “separate people fighting for advantage”19, an idea he extracted from the exploitation of natural resources and the development of ruthless commercialism.
Ginsberg was part of the anti-war movements and the hippie lifestyle of the era, was a patient in mental hospitals, and became an advocate for gay rights. He traveled around the world with his partner Peter Orlovsky and used many drugs to stimulate creativity, and later promoted the legalization of many of those.20 His whole life he rebelled against the conservative America. This America first heard about Ginsberg when his publisher was charged with selling obscene material for publishing Howl “because of the graphic language and Ginsberg’s openness about his homosexuality”.21 They won the trial- and therefore the fame and attention they deserved.
3. “Song of Myself” and “Howl”
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.22
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterically naked,
Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…23
These are the two opening lines of Whitman’s Song of Myself and Ginsberg’s Howl. Both became very famous in literary discussions and, put next to each other, show both, the similarities and the differences.
Whitman uses “self-exaltation”24 in his opening, that gives the reader a clue of how the poem will continue: he describes American society, from highest to lowest social hierarchy, which is all the same, as “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”, and he does it with a positive undertone, a passion for the goodness of his society (“celebrate”). The opening equalizes not only all members of the American people, but also writer and reader: “if ‘you’ can assume the same identity or obligations as ‘I’ can, then the two can no longer be so easily distinguished”.25 Whitman creates a great union in his first stanza, a union of all members of society. With the help of rhetorical questions, direct addresses to the reader and descriptions of the most distinguished members of society, the poem is exploring “the relationship between the individual and society in a democracy”.26
Ginsberg, on the other hand, states in his first line the impact the development of the American society in the 1950s has had on him and his companions: destruction, madness, drug addiction. Just as Song of Myself describes American society, so is Howl. It is mostly autobiographic, Ginsberg has seen and expierenced most scenes that are brought up in the poem – all the friends of him who could not share the dream of the 1950s.27 Neeli Cherkovski describes it as follows:
1 “Allen Ginsberg on Walt Whitman: Composed on the Tongue”. In Perlman, Jim; Folsom, Ed; Campion, Dan (Ed.): Walt Whitman – the measure of his song, p. 331f.
2 In: Allen Ginsberg: Howl and other poems. p. 29
3 “Allen Ginsberg on Walt Whitman: Composed on the Tongue”. In Perlman, Jim; Folsom, Ed; Campion, Dan (Ed.): Walt Whitman – the measure of his song, p. 329
4 William Patrick Jeffs. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry, p. 95
5 Cp. William Patrick Jeffs. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry, p. 30
6 Walt Whitman: Democratic Vistas, cited in Jeffs, William Patrick. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry, p. 31
8 “Allen Ginsberg on Walt Whitman: Composed on the Tongue”, p. 337, Ginsberg describing Whitman’s point of view of the American society in the 19th century.
9 Liam Corley: Literary Contexts in Poetry: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"
10 Cp. William Patrick Jeffs. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry, p. 32
11 Walt Whitman, „The Eighteenth Presidency!“, cited in the above mentioned work, p. 32
12 William Patrick Jeffs. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry, p. 32
13 s.a., p. 34
14 William Patrick Jeffs. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry, p. 31
15 Liam Corley: Literary Contexts in Poetry: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"
16 William Patrick Jeffs. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry, p.95
17 Frank Casale: Literary Contexts in Poetry: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”
18 Allen Ginsberg, Composed on the Tongue, quoted in: Jeffs, William Patrick. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry, p.77
19 “Allen Ginsberg on Walt Whitman: Composed on the Tongue”. In Perlman, Jim; Folsom, Ed; Campion, Dan (Ed.): Walt Whitman – the measure of his song, p. 336
20 cp. Jennifer B. Petersen: Allen Ginsberg
22 Walt Whitman: Song Of Myself, opening lines
23 Allen Ginsberg: Howl, opening lines
24 Liam Corley: Literary Contexts in Poetry: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"
25 Peter J. Bellis: Writing Revolution: aestetics and politics in Hawthorne, Whitman, and Thoreau, p. 88; there is also a lot more about the contradictory reader-writer relationship in Smith, Gayle L.; Bloom, Harold : “ Reading ‘Song of Myself’: Assuming What Whitman Assumes”.
26 Liam Corley: Literary Contexts in Poetry: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"
27 Cp. Neeli Cherkovski: Heartbeat: Sechs Portraits. (Whitman’s Wild Children), p. 102
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- University of Frankfurt (Main) – Institut für England- und Amerikastudien
- beat generation walt whitman song of myself allen ginsberg howl poetry lyric 19th century 20th century