Claude McKay

Allen Ginsberg

“America” (1956) by Allen Ginsberg and “America” (1922) by Claude McKay posses the same title, however have radically different outcomes. Both Poems directly comment on the opposition the speaker receives from society. “America” by Claude McKay has a central theme of a loving hateful relationship towards the country the speaker resides in. “America” by Allen Ginsberg has a central theme of a sarcastic commentary on modern society. Ginsberg’s “America” is extremely witty and playful in his resistance to the changes happening to his surrounding culture. Allen Ginsberg is an essential component to the Beat Generation, a group of hipster poets who commented on modern day society. He was raised in a New York City suburb, and had a communist background, much of which influenced his writing. He is most noted for “Howl”, a rather lengthy semi-autographical poem. He was also awarded the National Book Award for “The Fall of America”. Claude McKay was thirty-six years older than Allen Ginsberg, in a time when being different and outspoken was not looked at kindly. McKay was a Jamaican at heart, but was a huge driving force in the Harlem Renaissance. He was also an outspoken communist, but later in his life converted to Catholicism, abandoning his former beliefs. Both versions of “America” are an interpretation of modern day society and how minorities deal with the extremities of life, however Ginsberg’s “America” conveys the importance of not being submissive in oppression through his comprehensive personification, whimsical tone, and candid persona.

In both versions of “America”, America is personified and attempts accountability for the actions taking place. Allen Ginsberg’s “America” personifies it as a collaboration of all the different types of people that contribute to society, including him. Ginsberg puts forth a responsibility on everyone, and also himself which is a  refreshing self-importance which he demonstrated in all walks of life. Barry Miles writes in his article titled “Ginsberg: A Biography” that “By the 1960’s Ginsberg was a celebrity man, a man ‘famous for being famous” (352) However, Claude McKay personifies his “America” into an abusive motherly figure, who essentially turns on him. In the poem “America” by Claude McKay proves the negative relationship when he states “Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, and sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,” (line 1-2). The hostile personification and imagery Claude McKay uses instigates distaste for the poem from the opening sequence.

McKay and Ginsberg both demonstrate a resentful, dissatisfied view, yet the underlying tone in Allen Ginsberg’s “America” is a much more playful, pleasant one than McKay’s somber “America”. Lines 42-45 of “America” by Ginsberg reads “I’m obsessed with Time Magazine. I read it every week. Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.” This uses an extremely teasing and amusing tone, evoking candid imagery without a focus on hate. On the other hand, McKay’s “America” is quite simple and submissive. Blyden Jackson in an article titled “The Essential McKay” comments on this by saying “McKay’s poetry is facile.” (216) The feeling of surrender stands out through out the poem and is quite disappointing. Everyone enjoys a hero, someone who stands up for what they believe in. In Ginsberg’s version, the reader is led to believe that a hero will arise, however McKay’s tone demonstrates an unwillingness to change what he feels is wrong.

The persona’s in “America” by Claude McKay and “America” by Allen Ginsberg are starkly different. Both poems have the persona’s of the writers, however Allen Ginsberg has a much more proactive approach to the problem they both speak about. In the poem “America” by Allen Ginsberg, the speaker proves his willingness to fix the problem, instead of being passive when he states “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” (line 93). He admits to not being the perfect person for the job, but he is willing to try regardless and fix the issues he so whole-heartedly is passionate it about. On the other side, McKay has unfortunate acceptance. He appears to be weak, and unwilling to actually focus on a solution, only commenting on the problem at hand. Lines 10-14 of “America” by Claude McKay reads “Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, And see her might and granite wonders there, Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.” This justifying the very point that the speaker would much rather view the world pessimistically, and just watch as time progresses. Houston A. Baker, Jr further justifies this logic in his article titled “The Passion of Claude McKay: Selected Poetry and Prose, 1912-1948” he states “It is charged with subtle resonances because the life of the Black intellectual in the Western Hemisphere is rarely serene and straight-forward.” (237)

Both Allen Ginsberg and Claude McKay demonstrate a somewhat disenchanted view of society, however their reasoning and outcomes are very different. In a time of the Harlem Renaissance, it is not exactly easy to understand or relate to a sense of complacency on McKay’s part. Both men had viable reasons for oppression. Claude McKay was a celebrated Jamaican in an American society that wasn’t so accepting of color. Allen Ginsberg was an open communist homosexual, in an equally disapproving time. What truly are the contributing factors that create such similar views on culture, yet such drastic planned outcomes and future hopes? Why is it that two parallel minds want two very different things? The multitude of answers provokes theories of psychology and sociology, but ultimately leaves this unanswered.