Culture and History in Poetry:
A Comparative Analysis of the Poems of Allen Ginsberg and Joy Harjo
Modernism in American poetry can be best characterized as eclectic and disparate, owing to a wide variety of influences made available by traditionalist and classic works. But to a great extent, modernism in this field is defined by the contribution of new viewpoints coming from multicultural sources. That America is the bastion of diversity and the melting pot of histories and cultures within and outside the national sphere is the sole cause for this variety, which has made poetry and literature as prolific as it is now.
Many of the best contemporary poets originate from America, and a considerable number are immigrants, or descended from first-generation settlers. Within these contexts lies a vast resource for ideologies and goals, as well as culture-specific concepts that may be rooted in social, political, and economic oppression and alienation. Two of the most notable modern poets come from opposite ends of the spectrum—one who is truly American, in the historical sense; and one who claims America as his place of birth but had found solace and identity outside of the country’s geographic limits.
Both poets have created their respective bodies of work that resonate the American experience, based on events and lifestyles that define their origins and upbringing. Allen Ginsberg and Joy Harjo, two of the most celebrated and individual poets of this time, have carved their own niches in the American tradition through two distinct ways—an outward view of the predominant society and culture, and an introspective style of self-discovery.
II. Allen Ginsberg: From the Inside Looking Out
Born into a Jewish family in New Jersey in 1926, Allen Ginsberg had been exposed to unconventional philosophies early on—with his father being a poet, and his mentally-unstable mother a self-proclaimed Communist, coming from the propagation of the ideology during the Great Depression.
Ginsberg grew up to be an outspoken youth and voiced out his opinions about workers’ rights and World Ward II through letters addressed to The New York Times. During this time, Ginsberg found his model in the works of legendary poet Walt Whitman, and this influenced him to pursue his talent in poetry. At Columbia University, Ginsberg would meet several people who would share his own ideals, and this included Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. Eventually this exclusive group called themselves the Beat Generation writers, which referred to their collective feelings towards rebelling against conformity and tradition that were prevalent during the post-War era (Charters).
In Ginsberg’s pursuit of further answers to his growing discontent with convention led him to the study of Tibetan Buddhism, which would figure in his most renowned poem, “Howl”. The poem exposed much of Ginsberg’s personal life, including his schizophrenic mother and the Beat Generation that he had started. The opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” is a fairly accurate and concise summary of his three major influences. His irreverent style invoked much of popular culture and current events, with his trademark resistance to the conventions of poetry. Ginsberg deliberately ignored meter and rhyme, and instead produced anti-structure poetry that celebrated his penchant for male sexuality—all of which coincide with his being a homosexual anti-nationalist. The Buddhist spirituality of non-material priorities was indirectly correlated to his original Communist views, yet the common point of de-prioritizing status and wealth brought the two concepts together to create Ginsberg’s worldview. “A Supermarket In California” is again a rebellious and sarcastic address to his own idol, Walt Whitman. By using the serene images Whitman used in his own poetry, Ginsberg appears to show Whitman what has become of the America the poet used to love.
The American in Ginsberg was a picture of discontent and rebellion; he refused to partake of the consumerist world the country and culture had to offer, and had to turn to foreign ways of thinking to complete his own identity. The times in which Ginsberg lived contributed significantly to this perspective, as the period was known for a pronounced call for tradition and American values.
III. Joy Harjo: From the Inside Looking Further In
Joy Harjo is one of the most distinguished modern poets of Native American heritage, and is also known for her contributions in music. Born in Oklahoma in 1951, Harjo exemplifies the ideals and culture of American Indians, as depicted in her poetry.
Nature and the earth are two common subjects in most Native American literature, and Harjo’s work validates this tradition. Though she was raised in a contemporary environment, Harjo never neglected her history, and would often call to the intrinsic Native American faith in the relationship between man and earth, on both physical and spiritual levels (UNM, 2008).
Harjo’s poem “Call It Fear” is a typical showcase of her references to nature as a supreme force that has the power to create fear coming from the facets it has yet to reveal to man—as seen in her mentions of “this edge”. Dark images and allusions to death are used to hint at what is yet to be known, which is the ultimate source of fear. In “White Bear”, she narrates the reluctance of a woman to leave the cosmopolitan comforts of New York for Tulsa, and dreams of a white bear. This, again, is a statement declaring the power of the earth over man and man-made concepts, with the mentions of Mt. St. Helen’s eruption and the appearance of the bear that almost seemed to be in control of all things. “The Flood” invokes a Native American myth, the “watersnake”, a supposedly evil symbol, yet is subtly glorified in the poem by giving it its own future possibilities. As in the other poems, this also demonstrates the relationship of the Native American culture with myths that originate from the earth and nature. It is a reminder, as well, to keep traditions alive.
Harjo, as an American, delves deeper into her conscious as her culture has afforded her—of being truly American, without the trappings of modernity and materialism. Native Americans are considered an ethnicity in the country where they were the original inhabitants, making present and future generations susceptible to the charms of practicality and liberal beliefs. Joy Harjo’s work aims to maintain the cultural identity that has given them their faith by describing an America that is still grounded in its original relationship with the earth and nature.
The voices of the two poets come from opposite ends, yet come together in one note—to contextualize America in parameters that do not restrict one’s views and beliefs. Whether it is born out of rebellion or tradition, both Ginsberg and Harjo are clear in their search for a nurturing culture that would accommodate the whole spectrum of ideologies. After all, America is the ultimate symbol of freedom and democracy, and not just capitalism and economic success.
Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California”. In The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Harjo, Joy. “Call It Fear”, “White Bear”, and “The Flood”. In The Norton Anthology
of American Literature, 6th ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.
Charters, Ann. “Allen Ginsberg’s Life”. Modern American Poetry,
University of New Mexico. “Joy Harjo”. UNM website, 2008.
Cite this Culture and History in Poetry: A Comparative Analysis of the Poems of Allen Ginsberg and Joy Harjo
Culture and History in Poetry: A Comparative Analysis of the Poems of Allen Ginsberg and Joy Harjo. (2016, Jun 10). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/culture-and-history-in-poetry-a-comparative-analysis-of-the-poems-of-allen-ginsberg-and-joy-harjo/