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20100325-1230 Ginsberg, Plath, and Lowell (Group 3)

Page history last edited by Ashley MacCheyne 10 years, 6 months ago


We began class with a discussion of "Beats" and "Confessionals" in modernist poetry. The former spans from the 50s to the early 70s and is characterized by a breaking with the norms of dominant society. Usually embarked upon by educated, disaffected youth, Beat poetry emphasized sexuality and experimentation. Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry typified these elements, was a student at Columbia who was expelled and, after spending some time in a psychiatric hospital (reminiscent of Pound's experiences), returned to school, graduated, and moved to Western California where he wrote poems such as A Supermarket in California. Invoking distinctly Whitmanesque elements such as exclamation, lengthy lines, cataloging, and observation within the somewhat ridiculous context of a supermarket, Ginsberg comments on the uninspired, consumer-driven, lost America in which he lives.

Another of Ginsberg's poems, Howl, (and particulary Footnote to Howl)  displays a similar theme of frustration with a lack of artistic inspiration in American society. Obscene and shocking sexuality, typical of Beat poetry, permeates throughout Howl, as Ginsberg details the lost America in which the best minds of his generation were starved.  The poem also repeats a motif of madness as ordinary and normal.

Representing the Confessionals, Sylvia Plath's poem Morning Song outlines the author's personal anxieties and internal struggles with motherhood and a burdening resentment of traditional gender roles. Confessional poetry often dealt with  the author's personal convictions about societal issues that were not commonly spoken of. Plath's poem expresses a mixture of anxiety, resentment, and compassion within a mother for her new child, feelings which would have perhaps been tabboo to discuss openly.




Word Count:




     In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

     What peaches, what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!-and you, Garcia Lorca, what are you doing down by the watermelons?

     "A Supermarket in California" (lines 2-3) Allen Ginsberg, 1956


Ginsberg connects to Whitman not only by saying his name in the poem, but also adopting a similar style. Each line in the poem is very long and filled with exclamatory statements. Ginsberg aligns himself as a poet of America, like Whitman, but recognizes something has been lost since Whitman's America. While Whitman wrote about the excitement of the city, Ginsberg is "shopping for images," with his only inspiration being a supermarket. The segment "Aisles full of husbands!" can be read as people are becoming products to be bought, a society much different from Whitman's.


I'm no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/ effacement at the wind's hand.

     "Morning Song" lines 7-9 Sylvia Plath

Plath speaks freely of the feeling of detatchment from the mother to her baby, which is something that in that day was not socially polite to talk about.  This passage in particular shows the mother going so far as to tell the child that she is not her mother any more than a cloud is the wind's mother.


Key Terms


Beat poetry- cultural phenomenon of American writers from the 50s throughout the early 70s characterized by rejection of traditional values and norms, blatant (sometimes shockingly obcene) sexuality, and innovative writing style.

Confessional poetry- focuses on the author's personal experiences and beliefs, and puts an emphasis on the individual. Writers include Sylvia Plath and Theodore Roethke. 

Comments (4)

Jenna Lappi said

at 5:58 pm on Mar 27, 2010

Hey guys, I started with the first passage by Ginsberg. I'll check back on Monday night to see if any blanks still need to be filled in.

taylor said

at 2:19 am on Mar 29, 2010

I added a part of the summary and two terms.

Ashley MacCheyne said

at 9:56 pm on Mar 29, 2010

I added a second passage, and I'm not sure if we should add another passage, or if we should add conspicuous consumption. let me know if I need to add anything, I'll check before class tomorrow :)
Have a great night

Brian Croxall said

at 5:07 pm on Apr 1, 2010

This is a pretty good set of notes for a day in which we had a lot to discuss. You get the basics of the Beats, although you could have dropped some of the biographical details about Ginsberg. Your discussion of Howl would have been enhanced by pointing out that the madness that Ginsberg is talking about is "performed," in a sense, by the text itself, which works itself into a frantic rage. It would have also been useful for you to clearly point out that the madness that the people are facing is being imposed from outside of them. In other words, it is caused by the logic of dominant culture and its institutions (museums, hospitals, wars, etc.) rather than being a result of any psychic deficiency on the part of those who have gone mad. Your summary would also be much easier to read if you formatted it a bit differently--say, putting in paragraph breaks.

Since I know how much we refer to the book in almost any class, I'm always surprised when there are less than three passages on a set of notes. I would have recommended another passage from Ginsberg to cover as much as possible. You do a very nice job explicating the first passage, showing Ginsberg's critique of consumerism and his stylistic relation to Whitman. The second one clarifies your point about Plath's speaker's detachment from the newborn. I think it might have been more useful to pick another portion of the poem (maybe the first two lines) where you can show both the distance from the baby and the fact that s/he is valued too.

I'm a bit surprised that you didn't have "counterculture" or "dominant culture" in your key terms. I know that we had talked about these some on 23 March, but they would have been appropriate here.

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