Allen Ginsberg Channels Walt Whitman

23 Apr


Allen Ginsberg hung a portrait of Walt Whitman in his home. He said his most memorable day as a student at Newark’s East Side High School was when his English teacher Francis Durbin read Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to the class. You can really hear a lot of Walt Whitman in Allen Ginsberg’s poetry. I mean, literally, he writes about Whitman in “A Supermarket in California.” More than just that, though, Ginsberg echoes Whitman’s themes. Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” is one such poem that seems simply a more old-fashioned version of Ginsberg’s poetry.

Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat—the deckhand singing on the steamboat
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench—the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song—the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning, or at the noon
intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or
washing—Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.
Though Ginsberg had some less kind words for America.

3 Responses to “Allen Ginsberg Channels Walt Whitman”

  1. Steve Rafalsky April 23, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

    Around 1970, when I was 28, I ran into Allen in a diner in the East Village, asked if I could join him at his table, and talked with him about Jesus Christ, Messiah of the Jews (being one myself), though I don’t think he heeded the message. Earlier, in college, when I read Howl in the laundromat, I wept—I thought highly of him as a poet and person.

    I owe much to the Beats—Allen, Jack, Greg, Ferlinghetti, Patchen, etc, though Patchen wasn’t really a Beat but he was there—for their poetics, and early on for the vision-questing.

    Though I don’t think it should be overlooked that Allen, and Greg, and Ferlinghetti were fierce enemies of Christ and His gospel (though Lawrence still lives, 96 yrs old, and there’s yet hope for his soul), and the drugs they used (as did I in those days) were the pharmakeia (sorceries) strongly warned against in the Book of Revelation (what Corso called “those eye-expanding chemicals” in “Elegiac Feelings American” part 2), and which have caused terrible havoc in the collective consciousness of humankind over the last half century. I think you know more about Jack than I do, and I’d be extremely interested if you have any info on his thoughts of Christ (from his Catholic background?) in the last days of his life. I well remember the line in Subterraneans, “…O God the whole host and foolish illusion and entire rigmarole and madness that we erect in the place of onelove…” I wonder what he was thinking of there.

    Much as I appreciate the Beats for their poetry, their places in the culture of our age, and their hearts, I am mindful of the children of the living God in Christ and their precarious status in a society which hates the things of God, and is growing to ferociously hate His people.

    I am also mindful of the poets and writers of the Everlasting Kingdom who write in Christ’s name, and seek to further an aesthetic which supports them in both the art and the prophetic stance.*


    In ancient times
    bards sang the feats of kings
    and of battles, heroics, and blood
    sometimes freely given – for honor, for love
    self-preservation flung to the winds
    an encumbering cloak
    changed for the bright linen of saints

    and seers delved into the hidden
    meaning of things written by prophets
    who saw and heard outside of time
    on the open field of omniscience
    in the mind of the One who sends his sayers
    with wisdom concerning the course of events
    that praises might ring above the plaints.

    But now, we know few bards and seers,
    few singers as of old, few learned
    in things that count, discerning
    gems from glass, poets now unwilling to hear
    wisdom that separates from the crowd,
    approval from peers the honor sought, and acclaim,
    few for their truth willing to be burned.

    Can it be that among the ranks
    of the world’s finest singers
    prophecy’s lodes are not mined
    but demeaned, and in their conceits
    ignored? So be it! We give thanks
    You have given the lowly to be bringers,
    O wise King, of Your astonishing feats.

    * See the paper, Poetry—In the Kingdom Under Siege, from my Dropbox folder: .

  2. Steve Rafalsky April 24, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    A little about Walt Whitman, as I neglected him in the above. It was 1965, hitchhiking around Mexico, and then into Belize (British Honduras in those days) and later into Guatemala, renting a little shack on stilts on the beach, and paying for meals in a family home—that the only two books I took with me were the Bible and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. I don’t know why I took the Bible (some instinct, perhaps), but “Leaves” I know, as I loved Whitman and his poetry. He was a companion and friend to my heart.

    When I met Jesus of Nazareth on the road in 1968, I left off walking with Whitman, Kerouac, Dylan, and various mystics, and set off with Him who was the answer to all my seeking.

    I came to learn that Walt was a true antichrist figure, not as in blatantly against Him but rather seeking to take His place, thinking himself an illumined one; see his poem in Leaves, “Chanting The Square Deific” where he thinks he incorporates in himself the spiritual archetypes of the world’s religions, including Satan in the third stanza, while in the fourth and last the Holy Spirit (“Santa Spirita”), and in the last lines assuming himself that Spirit. Little wonder Richard Maurice Bucke in his book, “Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind”, states Whitman is one of the finest examples of spiritual illumination. Whitman scholars, and spiritual seekers, know this.

    And insofar as Ginsberg “channeled” him (loosely, not technically, speaking), he sought after both the poetic grandeur, inner freedom, and illumined consciousness of his mentor.

    I think it’s wonderful that you’re into these American classics—so few Christians are—as to me they are the gems of our literature, telling their hearts and their stories in the manner Ferlinghetti spoke of in “Poetry As Insurgent Art”: “Bring together again the telling of a tale and the living voice”. And we need such real voices in these times of fiction, hype and jive, to get a sense of real lives and hearts, however dark, as Ferlinghetti again said, “Be a teller of great tales, even the darkest.”

    Yet, at the same time, having drunk deeply of them and learned what they have to teach, then, in loyalty to Christ, we must “take forth the precious from the vile…clean from unclean…and holy from unholy” (Jer 15:19; Lev 10:10).

    I think you do the art—and the artists among the saints—great service bringing these dark treasures back into the light of day, but please always have a mind to the nuances of the sacred and the profane, the former the realm of which we are headed for to an eternity of beauty. Alas, the latter heads to another realm, that of misery.

  3. Regina Nevermind May 14, 2015 at 8:59 am #

    Oh, how much i love all these poets from beat generation, crazy colorful deep-soul freaks ☺ i especially love when some of them used “contaminations” between different arts, like poetry and music, as Ginsberg did, for example what do you think about a poet who try to sing and making music? 🙂 (( hope you’ll enjoy my vid, its just a little tribute i made)

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