Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971, The

Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965–1971, The
by Allen Ginsberg
   A major volume of “road” poems, The Fall of America won the prestigious National Book Award for Poetry in 1973. Conceptually, it is allen ginsberg’s most ambitious full-length book of poems. The book was composed as a travelogue documenting Ginsberg’s travels in the United States from 1965 to 1971. In his afterword, Ginsberg dedicates the book to Walt Whitman, whose warning of American materialistic decline in his major prose work, Democratic Vistas, is one of the primary inspirations for The Fall of America. Whitman predicted, with some urgency, that the United States needed an imaginative renewal to sustain itself in the increasingly industrialized end-of-the-century modern world; the “soul” of the American imagination was found, for Whitman, in literature. As a poet who saw himself to be a 20th-century heir of Whitman’s visionary voice, Ginsberg set out in The Fall of America to survey what Whitman called these States and to dramatize the causes of what he saw as their decline and potential for reascension. Despite Whitman’s dire cautions in Democratic Vistas, his optimism leads him to forecast a 20th century in which American entrepreneurial spirit and technological know-how “lead the world”; of this future, he writes, “There will be daily electric communication with every part of the globe. What an age! What a land!” The text of The Fall of America suggests that Ginsberg hears the echoes of this optimism, but in an era dominated by the Vietnam War and what Ginsberg saw as governmental propaganda that propped the war, “daily electric communication” had corrupted “these States.”
   Ginsberg’s project in The Fall of America is to recuperate language. As much as Ginsberg distrusts American technological advancement in these poems—with technology serving the war effort in what he once termed the electronic war of Vietnam-the composition process of this book itself depended on the use of technology. Most of the poems in this book were composed with the aid of a state-of-the-art reel-to-reel tape recorder. The poet’s immediate thoughts were spoken into the tape recorder, while the machine also picked up random background sounds and news from the car radio (see also “wichita vortex sutra”). All language on the tape recorder, not just Ginsberg’s words, was incorporated into the poems, and Ginsberg used the on–off clicking sound of the tape recorder to determine the line breaks in the poem. One of the most important technical aspects of this book, then, is Ginsberg’s improvisatory composition process. Ginsberg’s career is framed by his efforts to loosen poetic voice by combining the need to revise with a determination to honor the productions of spontaneous composition. In his teaching and interviews, he often repeated the words of his first Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who advised artists that one’s “first thought” is one’s “best thought.” The Fall of America, with its improvisatory “auto poesy” at the core of its creation, marks perhaps Ginsberg’s only sustained book-length spontaneous composition. The book is divided into five sections. Each section explores a landscape that, in a significant nod to Whitman, is both physical and psychological. Section I, “Through the Vortex West Coast to East 1965–1966,” is important for its introduction of the major theme of the book itself—the malleability of language and meaning, and the responsibility of literary artists to take a direct role in the shaping of culture through words. Revising Whitman’s declaration that literature is the country’s soul, Ginsberg proclaims early in “Beginning of a Poem of These States,” the first poem in the book, that radio is “the soul of the nation.” Of course, if radio is the soul of the United States, this is so in The Fall of America only through the imaginative labor of the poet who recontextualizes the musical and rhetorical snippets of wartime America into coherent, though deliberately fragmented, verse. Music from the radio is incorporated to frame the road optimism and war weariness of the opening poem, in songs ranging through “California Dreaming,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Universal Soldier,” and “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?”. In this first poem, too, Ginsberg introduces the role that his increased study of Buddhism would play in the book, where the groundlessness of Buddhism is a preferred mode of vision to Judeo-Christian monotheism: “I have nothing to do . . . Heaven is renounced, Dharma no path, no Saddhana to fear.” Ginsberg offers a bibliographic note at the beginning of the book, stating that his long poem “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” originally published in 1968 in Planet News, belongs sequentially in this section of the book. Along with “Iron Horse,” another of Ginsberg’s separately published Buddhist-inspired poems of this road pilgrimage, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” was added to The Fall of America sequence by Ginsberg in his 1984 volume, Collected Poems 1947-1980. According to Ginsberg, he included “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and “Iron Horse” in The Fall of America section of Collected Poems to fill conceptual “gaps” in the original publication history of his work. Because Buddhism plays such an important role in these poems, their 1984 addition to The Fall of America sequence represents Ginsberg’s later effort to reinforce the activist impulse of The Fall of America with the religious authority of Buddhism and the literary authority of the epic form. “Zigzag Back Thru These States 1966–1967,” Section II of the book, extends further a theme introduced in the first section—that late 20thcentury capitalism depends on an interconnection of a country’s war and leisure economies. In “Autumn Gold: New England Fall,” Ginsberg bemoans that “[e]ven sex happiness” is “a long drawn out scheme / To keep the mind moving” until, at the Veterans Hospital, “we can all collapse, / Forget Pleasure and Ambition.” The link between war and spectacle in the American economy is significant in The Fall of America and in much of Ginsberg’s later work. A poem such as “War Profit Litany,” which ends this section of the book with an “accounting” that merges the everyday transactions of ordinary citizens with war combat, prefigures later work on this same theme, such as “Who Runs America?” from the 1977 volume Mind Breaths. “Elegies for Neal Cassady 1968,” Section III of the book, explores the psychological landscape of the poet as figure for that of the United States. Written a week after neal cassady’s death, the title poem of this section elegizes Cassady as a “Tender Spirit” who now rests “story told, Karma resolved,” and concludes of their on and off romantic involvement: “My body breathes easy, / I lie alone, / living.” Ginsberg includes in this same section of the book “Please Master,” the sexually charged counterpart to “Elegy for Neal Cassady.” “Please Master” stages the symbiotic quality of sadomasochistic sexual practice as a symbol for the occasional romantic relationship between Ginsberg and Cassady. Cassady is the self-evidently controlling master having his way with a submissive Ginsberg in this poem. The poem is more than just a private elegy for Cassady. Seen as overly explicit in its time, the poem’s assertions of male–male desire in retrospect anticipate gay activist literature of the period that would follow the Stonewall uprising of 1969. One of the last poems in Section III, “Grant Park: August 28, 1968,” closes with a question that resonates into Section IV of the book: “Miserable picnic,” Ginsberg writes of the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, “Police State or Garden of Eden?” Section IV, “Ecologues of These States 1969–1971,” whose title puns on the pastoral form of the eclogue, pits the poet’s increased feeling of “police state” autocracy against his continued, Whitman-inspired idealism. In “Over Denver Again,” written a year after Cassady’s death, Ginsberg represents a “Denver without Neal” as a stultifying inorganic tundra where “insects hop back and forth between metallic cities.” The need for a human community central to Whitman’s vision is under duress in this section. In Democratic Vistas, Whitman argued that homosocial comradeship, or “adhesive love,” as he called it, offered a democratic “counterbalance” to “offset” American materialism and spiritual decay. Ginsberg is inspired by Whitman’s words, but the culture of America in the Vietnam era produces division rather than adhesion. In this section, for instance, Ginsberg writes of the Apollo Moon landing, an action in which Whitman, arguably, would have extolled in his poetics of manifest destiny-yet Ginsberg’s celebration of the event takes place in solitude, “In a Moonlit Hermit’s Cabin,” as stated in the title. What Ginsberg earlier described as the “electronic war” continues, and Ginsberg laments that the Moon landing has taken national consciousness, the soul of the nation for Whitman, and transformed it into vulgar nationalism: “Two ‘Americans’ on the moon! / Beautiful view, bouncing the surface—‘one quarter of the world denied these pix by their rulers’! / Setting up the flag!” These words are echoed later, in “Death on All Fronts,” when Ginsberg puns on the phases of the Moon, noting that a “new Moon looks down on our sick sweet planet.” The Moon, symbol of poetic imagination, has been colonized; the American flag has been planted on a “new” Moon that will never be the same. The poems in this section are notable, too, for their continued return to the poet’s private grief over Cassady’s death and, in October 1969, the death of jack kerouac. Ginsberg’s autobiographical impulse at times overwhelms the poems in this section. In so doing, the poet’s trust in naming, seen in his belief earlier in the book in the transformative power of mantra speech, becomes simple name-calling. In “D.C. Mobilization,” Ginsberg describes the White House five days after the Kent State shootings as flat, abstracted “Iron Robot”; and in “Ecologue,” America is described simply as a “Country / full of pricks.” As if to remind readers that American exceptionalism is a fiction, the final section of the book, Section V, “Bixby Canyon to Jessore Road,” closes with “September on Jessore Road,” a long poem in quatrains that narrates the movement of millions of suffering refugees on the main road between Bangladesh and Calcutta. Ginsberg details the starving condition of these refugees and asks why U.S. funds that perpetuate the Vietnam war effort cannot be diverted to aid those “
illions of children” with “nowhere to go.” To be sure, the political sentiment of “September on Jessore Road” is consistent with the literary–activist impulse of The Fall of America and its inspiration, Democratic Vistas. However, beginning with the private elegies in Section III, it is questionable whether Ginsberg’s book can sustain the polyvocal experiments in private and public utterance that open The Fall of America. In her review of the book, Helen Vendler notes that the poems are characterized by “the disappearance or exhaustion of long-term human relations.” Whether this loss of human connection is a deliberated dramatization of American decay or a symptom of the poet’s private loss is the primary legacy of “Ginsberg’s ardent atlas,” Vendler’s description of the encompassing ambition of this book.
■ Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile. Edited by Barry Miles. New York: HarperCollins, 1986.
■ ———. Interview with Michael Aldrich, et al. “Improvised Poetics.” Composed on the Tongue: Literary Conversations, 1967-1977. San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1980, 18–62.
■ Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.
■ Trigilio, Tony. “ ‘Will You Please Stop Playing With the Mantra?’: The Embodied Poetics of Ginsberg’s Later Career.” In Reconstructing the Beats, edited by Jennie Skerl, 119–140. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
■ Vendler, Helen. “Review of The Fall of America.” The New York Times Book Review, 15 April 1973, 1. Reprinted in Lewis Hyde, ed., On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984, 203–209.
■ Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Edited by Michael Moon, Sculley Bradley, and Harold W. Blodgett. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 2002.
   Tony Trigilio

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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