January 29, 2014

"America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."

So wrote Allen Ginsberg, in the last line of his poem "America," which I'm thinking about this morning as I reflect on the State of the Union rhetoric. As long as I've compared that rhetoric to the work of one poet — Bob Dylan's "3 Angels" — the rules of blogging impel me to move on to the clear resonance with Allen Ginsberg. Obama said "shoulder to the wheel":
[F]or more than two hundred years, we have... placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress....
I've already said that "put your shoulder to the wheel" is an old cliché. If you clicked on my link in my "10 things I might have live-blogged, if I'd blogged the State of the Union Address last night," you saw that it went to The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel," the lyrics of which form a poem:
Put your shoulder to the wheel; push along,
Do your duty with a heart full of song,
We all have work; let no one shirk.
Put your shoulder to the wheel.
I made fun of Obama's use of the dainty "placed" instead of the usual "put." I don't see that wheel moving if you're just going to place your shoulder on it. Seems more like you're just leaning on the wheel for support. As Walt Whitman said — singing about himself:
I loaf and invite my soul,   
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
But enough with the grass — the choom. Quit loafing and leaning, and put your shoulder to the wheel. You've got to push the wheel, as the Mormon choristers knew. I'll say no more about the "collective" in Obama's "collective shoulder," and the "progress" in his "wheel of progress." That's discussed in the last paragraph of the old "10 things" post.

I want to talk about the poetry. Obama reveals in his autobiography that he used to keep "a journal of daily reflections and very bad poetry." And we've had a chance to read some of his poetry. Here's "Pop," within which he lets himself get called "a green young man/Who fails to consider the/Flim and flam of the world." And now, last night, we had Obama flim-flamming the whole world.

If I credit Obama as a wordsmith, I've got to hear the resonance in the stock phrase "shoulder to the wheel," which — to my ear, and I'd think to any reader of American poetry — evokes Ginsberg's line. This is especially so since the poem is called "America." It begins:
America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
This is a great poem, so refreshing after the SOTU, which could use some lines like, skipping ahead, (and, remember, this is addressed to America):
I'm sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
And, more edgily:
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I'm not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
More bloggily:
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Ginsberg ends with what is, after all, Obama's obsession, jobs:
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 parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
According to Wikipedia, the original draft of the poem ended pessimistically, "Dark America! toward whom I close my eyes for prophecy, / and bend my speaking heart! / Betrayed! Betrayed!" Like the writer of a State of the Union Address, Ginsberg decided instead to end on a sunnily positive note: America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Was that kind of nutty? Ginsberg tells us he's psychopathic in the previous line, so maybe we're supposed to think that you've got to be crazy to join this collective project, America, and start pushing. But I'm not crazy, and I'm not paranoid enough to think that Obama is winking at America/"America" and mocking the conventional speech-ending optimism by talking about 200 years of putting our shoulder to the wheel.

And yet... Is Obama laughing at us?

51 comments:

Laslo Spatula said...

Less wheels, more shovels.

Terry said...

Obama comes from a long line of progressive politicians who promise you not leisure, not liberty, not opportunity, but hard work so that others more deserving than you shall enjoy leisure, liberty, and opportunity.

mccullough said...

Allen Ginsberg tried so hard to be like Walt Whitman. But he was a dud, like Obama.

Obama should read John Ashbery.

betamax3000 said...

I'm Going to Need to Put My Nose to the Grindstone to Better Understand the Conceptual Implications of 'Shoulder to the Wheel'...

wildswan said...

I'm putting my Colectivo cup to my lips and my own two feet on the table and thinking about spring's flowers.

Henry said...

Like the writer of a State of the Union Address, Ginsberg decided instead to end on a sunnily positive note: America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Maybe Ginsberg edited that last line in Cherry Valley, New York -- a place that he lived that I lived too. Cherry Valley has natural lithium in the water. There's a historic pump in the center of town supposedly connected to the lithium spring.

Here's the New York Times on the story. Ginsberg gets a mention.

jr565 said...

'with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls’

Yup, that describes the gay lifestyle to a tee. Must the balls be endless though? No cessation of balls ever? Is the cock endless too, or just the balls?

RecChief said...

Why would you credit President "uh..um" as a wordsmith?

Terry said...

The first thing you need to understand is that his poetry is bad. It is not written for the ages, but for alienated Boomers. The appeal is emotional, not aesthetic, and the emotional appeal is felt by a narrow audience.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
. . .

This is just bad. Who or what is "floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz"?

jr565 said...

I'm Going to Need to Put My Nose to the Grindstone to Better Understand the Conceptual Implications of 'Shoulder to the Wheel'...

Or as Ice cube would say:
(girls voice)You can do it put your back into it
(Ice Cube)I can do it put my ass into it
(Girls' voice) Put your back into it
(Ice Cube)Put your ass into it.

jr565 said...

"This is just bad. Who or what is "floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz"?

Hipster gay junkies high on heroin?

betamax3000 said...

A Few Poetic Turns of Phrase Do Not Turn a Grocery List into a Poem.

America, Tabasco Sauce
Lemons, Laundry Soap, Dental Floss
Titanic Iceberg Lettuce, in a Vessel Gently Tossed
A Cardboard Quaker Sowing His Oats
In a Cardboard Box

America You Are Vermont State
and Vermont is the Fate
of Maple Syrup Coupons and Instant Rebates
Discounted Bisquick for Fluffy Pancakes and
Dish Detergent to Clean the Plate
Florida Oranges by the Crate and
a Kansas Steak for Someone to Steal
Mrs. Butterworth, We Shall Push
That Wheel, Together.

Meat Loaf, America, Your Spices are on Aisle Five.

jr565 said...

Lets parse this poem a bit:
"When will you look at yourself through the grave?"

Maybe when were dead. only if we're dead how can we look at ourselves through the grave. Are graves transparent?
"When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?"
When will those million trotskyites be worthy of America? Not in Alan's lifetime that's for sure. Maybe Trotsky got the icepick he deserved.

"America why are your libraries full of tears?"

Are the libraries full of tears?
"America when will you send your eggs to India?"

I don't know. June 24th.
"I'm sick of your insane demands."


But Alan Ginsburg's demands (or any other Trotskyite who stands in for him) aren't insane. At least America is not demanding that dead people look at themselves through graves.

Sigivald said...

... who?

It's not the 60s anymore.

None of these people are relevant. They're not even really relevant as echoes in the minds of people who are relevant.

(And Ginsberg was a lousy poet.

Burroughs was better, and he wasn't even trying to be one.

Not that he was any good, either, once he devolved into cut-ups.)

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

I'll say this, his death occasioned a very very nice tribute song by Natalie Merchant, The Last King of May.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

Oops. I guess it is just called King of May

Laslo Spatula said...

RE: "Natalie Merchant"

I can't get past her singing sounding like Katherine Hepburn.

jr565 said...

"I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet."


Probably because you're smoking marijuana every chance you get.

Terry said...

jr565-
Are sure it is not coldwater flats that are floating around the tops of cities contemplating jazz? You can't tell by context -- it is equally bizarre to have junkies float across the top of a city. Paglia didn't put "Howl" in her book of close readings of poetry because, she admitted, it doesn't handle a close reading well. Nor did much of Ginsberg's poetry other than a poem that was not typical Ginsberg: http://www.bu.edu/arion/files/2010/03/Final-Cut-Paglia.pdf
And Paglia thinks Ginsberg is a genius.

Birches said...

@jr565

I love that Ice Cube song.

Bob Boyd said...

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. - Wallace Stevens

Wayne Martin said...

The problem with his statement is "collective shoulder", i.e., the government. He fails (or refuses) to recognize that, historically, Americans achieved great things in ensemble by putting their individual shoulders to the wheel, rather than by acting as a collective under government control.

Wayne Martin said...

The problem with his statement is "collective shoulder", i.e., the government. He fails (or refuses) to recognize that, historically, Americans achieved great things in ensemble by putting their individual shoulders to the wheel, rather than by acting as a collective under government control.

jr565 said...

"I'm addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I'm obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week."

He's addressing America. Is America responsible for for your emotional life being run by Time Magazine? I thought we, as individuals are responsible for our emotional lives. Yet another sin that America must atone for. America forced alan Ginsberg to read Time magazine.Damn you Amerikkka!
"ts cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library."

So that's how he knows about the tears in the library. If he's in the basement though maybe its not tears but a leak from the bathroom upstairs.

RecChief said...

I ownder how Ginsberg would react to the conformity of thought exhibited by the left since 2000?

Laslo Spatula said...

Individuals have their shoulders to the wheel. The problem is the shoulders of Government pushing from the other side.

jr565 said...

"My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals
an unpublishable private literature that goes 1400 miles and hour and
twentyfivethousand mental institutions."

Is he Jeffrey Dahmer? Why does he have millions of genitals?Is he keeping them in rooms in the 25,000 mental institutions? Refrigerated I hope.

or when he says My is he now acting as the stand in for America. So America has millions of genitals. That would be true, I gues. But, only two joints for all of America? Maybe because Alan smoked the rest.

jr565 said...

"Are sure it is not coldwater flats that are floating around the tops of cities contemplating jazz? You can't tell by context -- it is equally bizarre to have junkies float across the top of a city."
It's hard to tell. I was thinking he was imagining he was flying like Superman above the buildings.

Henry said...

"Are sure it is not coldwater flats that are floating around the tops of cities contemplating jazz?"

Why are the cities contemplating jazz?

jr565 said...

"I'm trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I'm doing"

Clearly you don't since you keep trying to come to the point and refuse to give up your obsession. And how is America pushing? By asking you to come to the point?

"I haven't read the newspapers for months (probably because you're reading Time magazine all the time. Prioritize your time better), everyday somebody goes on trial for
murder."

that tends to happen in a country with millions of people. People go on trial every day.

lemondog said...

America when will you send your eggs to India?

Famine in India

Context of the times. His poetry is reflective partially of the times.

A country that emerged 10 years prior from a world war, and earlier from a depression with a history of worker riots, and a country that was becoming the economic engine of the world.

How he would handle the current 24/7 information cycle, NSA and drones?

jr565 said...

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night"

Only didn't these great minds destroy themselves through drug use and madness? That's not America, thats what happens to drug users and schizophrenics and outcasts. All the people that Ginsberg lionizes. Only rather than accepting that that way leads to madness, he, like a good lefty, blames America, or Moloch for destroying these great minds.

jr565 said...

Lemondog wrote:
Famine in India

Context of the times. His poetry is reflective partially of the times.
I thought George Harrison solved that whole thing with his epic concert in Bangladesh. I know my mom bought the album.

jr565 said...

From Howl:
"who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,

who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night

with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,"

He's referring to the best minds of his generation. I may not have the best mind of my generation, but even I know that drinking turpentine is bad for you. So maybe these weren't really the best minds of his generation after all.

traditionalguy said...

Crafty Obama is pretending to be a leader. That's all he has ever done. And we do amuse him.

His role requires a failed mess that he can Organize as a Community in need of a collective action.

The proverbial ox in the ditch calls all good Americans to, "put their shoulder to the wheel" until it is out of the ditch...we all fall for that one.

The joke on us is that Obama keeps us in the ditch quite on purpose as we all can see. We are all silly fools to Obama falling for War on Women nonsense as if it is real. Which is also why we know that he is not a natural born American.

jr565 said...

Also from Howl. Clearly the ravings of a crazy person or someone high on drugs or both:
"who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism, who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed,"

who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons,

who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,
<

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,"



Im picturing this in my mind and realizing that Alan Ginsberg was bat shit insane. And I can see why Aids became the epidemic it did.

jr565 said...

"who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in policecars for committing no crime but their own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication"

Yes, quite clearly the greatest minds of his generation. that was his generations Einstein or Copernicus.

EDH said...

"Seems more like you're just leaning on the wheel for support."

Obama uses statistics in the same way that a drunken man uses lamp posts — for support rather than illumination.

- Andrew Lang, 1910

William said...

Perhaps the implicit metaphor of putting a queer shoulder to the wheel is throwing a monkey wrench in the gears. That seems to have been the purpose of his life and works--throwing a monkey wrench in the works.

doofus said...

I think we should consider the enduring words of one of the greatest of America's Poet Laureates:

If you want a car or truck, go see Cal.
If you want to save a buck, go see Cal.
Give a new car to your wife, she will love you all her life,
Go see Cal, go see Cal, go see Cal.

William said...

Perhaps in Marxist terms he felt that he was part of the dialectic. I don't think he was truly the antithesis to the thesis of Anerican conformity, but that's what he liked to think. Or maybe it was better stated as sepsis to antisepsis. Or maybe, in the fullness of time, we can judge him to be roughage for the belly of the beast.

William said...

The horseman casts a cold eye on life, on death. The horse leaves its own comment.

Mark said...

With his not-so-sly allusions to Marxist symbology embedded in his campaign themes and imagery I've always thought he was poking fun at bourgois America.

Then there are instances like when he slipped in the finger during his primary battle with Hillary! where his sophomoric side shines through.

As the fun for him continues to erode, expect him to push the boundaries ever farther, and for his "minor" pranks to become less and less minor and more and more toxic.

Mitch H. said...

Allen Ginsberg tried so hard to be like Walt Whitman.

I agree that "America" doesn't even rise to the level of terrible, but I have to argue for "Howl". It is honestly lyrical, full of fantasic imagery. It has heart and a smashed sort of beauty, which is all too rare in modern American poetry, if you ask me. Too often the stuff is written for small-minded activists and dead-souled academics, sometimes for both at once.

And Paglia thinks Ginsberg is a genius.

To quote Bujold, “All the geniuses I ever met were so just part of the time. To qualify, you only have to be great once, you know. Once when it matters.”

As for the floating thing, it's pretty clear from context that it's the junkies staring out of "coldwater flats" (aka apartments), feeling like they're floating over the city, and he dropped the comma to continue the extended effect of linguistic derangement to match the actual thematic derangement. But we all know how much Althouse despises writing that attempts to replicate an emotional effect through its linguistic equivalent - or is that only for prose?

More about "America" - it's a terribly pedestrian failure of a poem, little better than the rantings of a discontented loon. The occasional brilliant phrase flails about in a filthy puddle, unstructured and lacking any rhythm I can discern.

And jr565, yes, those fragments of "Howl" look like nasty gibberish divorced from the structure of the poem, which you have smashed flat and ripped out of context. The result bears as much resemblance to the poem proper as fireflies alight in an evening garden might resemble themselves once they've been captured, crushed flat and taped between the leaves of a journal.

The Godfather said...

OK, I understand putting your QUEER shoulder to the wheel. It may not be great poetry but it's comprehensible.

I don't understand "placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress." We don't HAVE a "collective" shoulder. Each of us has a shoulder (most of us have two, in fact), so he could have said, "we all" or "all Americans" or something like that did that thing with our shoulders. Only somebody raised in someplace like North Korea would think that "collective shoulder" -- note the singular form of the noun -- was the way to say it.

But the real tell is "placed". Any native speaker of English would say "put". That's the expression, and that's what makes sense. You don't "place" your shoulder on something you're going to push.

This is yet more evidence that Obama is a Manchurian Candidate. Or perhaps a space alien. I'm not sure. Certainly he's not "one of us". The birthers who say he was born in Nigeria are WAY off.

Michael K said...

My remaining life is too short for bad poetry. I prefer Robert Frost .

Having a wheel and four legs of its own
Has never availed the cumbersome grindstone
To get it anywhere that I can see.
These hands have helped it go, and even race;
Not all the motion, though, they ever lent,
Not all the miles it may have thought it went,
Have got it one step from the starting place.


Kind of like Obama.

Terry said...

Bob Boyd quoted Wallace Stevens:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


This is good. It's part of a longer poem called 'The Snowman': http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-snow-man/

Wallace is not talking about himself. He is talking about not having a point of view at all, and contemplating not-thinking. The winter landscape has no emotional context for a snowman. It is meaningless without a mind to behold it.

jr565 said...

Mitch h wrote:
And jr565, yes, those fragments of "Howl" look like nasty gibberish divorced from the structure of the poem, which you have smashed flat and ripped out of context. The result bears as much resemblance to the poem proper as fireflies alight in an evening garden might resemble themselves once they've been captured, crushed flat and taped between the leaves of a journal.

I didn't say Howl was gibberish. America is closer to gibberish. But Howl, far from celebrating the freaks paints a picture of the 9 circles of hell In terms of the craziness exhibited.
Supposedly the second section deals with the sacrifice of said brilliant minds to the state. But even the celebration of the misfit in book one deals with characters that are raving loons who need to be carried away by cops for being completely insane.
It indicts society for arresting people for the simple crimes of drunkenness and pederasty . Both of which there are perfectly valid reasons to arrest one because if. Especially if you are on a rooftop naked and raving with pamphlets or having anal sex in a public park or what have you.

Malesch Morocco said...

I saw Allen Ginsberg at a poetry reading in your beloved Ann Arbor about 1979. I sat directly in front of him in the first row. Just before the reading began he asked if he could borrow my watch to keep track of the time. My touch with greatness!!!!! Ann Arbor. You gotta love it!

Quaestor said...

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness...

Ginsberg wouldn't have known a best mind of his generation if an owner of such a mind strolled up and bit him on the ass.

Beats. Beats me what they did that could be styled an achievement, unless one admits their dedication to the anarcho-communist mission called for the negative achievement of destruction of Western bourgeois culture, a destruction which rumbles on ever louder even today.

If the beats had tried their crap in Russia they'd have all ended their days digging gold in Siberia, but here in the homeland of the culture they universally despised they were more than tolerated. They were feted by elites and wannabes, lionized by journalists and media personalities, published by major houses whose investments have never paid except through the captive market of hapless students shackled to a corrupted academy.

Beats. Maynard G. Krebs was a self-identified beat. Says it all, man.

a psychiatrist who learned from veterans said...

I wasn't all that into him, but I thought Ginsberg did put his 'queer shoulder to the wheel' and contribute to our liberation from implicit identity conformity. For me, Jean Genet was more accessible. He talked about how someone's actions were a 'gesture' of significance. The gesture of Obama is in question but boring and inefficient, unfortunately, seem to be part of the answer. On the positive side, except for Republicans and the Tea party, he doesn't show a propensity for war.