“The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet be fully alive.”
by Philip Whalen
I can’t live in this world
And I refuse to kill myself
Or let you kill me
The dill plant lives, the airplane
My alarm clock, this ink
I won’t go away
I shall be myself—
Free, a genius, an embarrassment
Like the Indian, the buffalo
Like Yellowstone National Park
Midway through Dave Chappelle’s new Netfllix special he says, “I can’t live in this world.” I don’t think he was quoting Philip Whalen. I feel that way sometimes. What world have we created in the past 50 years? We have brought more people out of poverty than at any time in history, we have created medical technology and an agricultural system undreamed of 80 years ago. We have created technology that mirrors fiction on Star Trek in the 1960s. By all measures of prosperity we have wildly succeeded globally, yet in measures of happiness, contentment, reducing anxiety, we have not moved the needle, in fact we have eroded it. Longer life, more food and more technology does not translate into happiness.
Allen Ginsburg is not a poet who made his name with sonnets. Howl is his signature poem, Woe Unto Thee Manhattan being the only example of a sonnet I have been able to find. Yet, this sonnet, written early in his career is eerily prophetic, or do we assign the tragedies of the future to words of the past simply because tragedy is always waiting in the future?
I don’t feel that way about my home – Minneapolis. I don’t relate or think my hometown will be victim to the woe that Ginsburg projects. But the good people of Odessa, Texas felt that way before gunfire shattered their peaceful co-existence. And the fine citizens of the Bahamas probably felt that way a week ago before they ever heard of hurricane Dorian. Ginsburg doesn’t declare whether the woe he predicts is from natural causes or the product of the human condition. Cities are the life blood of our society, its generally where new ideas incubate, new technology arises, the arts and diversity flourish. They are also becoming a place of division, a divide between the haves and have nots. New York is vibrant. So is every other city he names. And yet, maybe we may all be in need of repentance soon enough as we ask, who or what has made this world where mass shootings have become daily news? Where we have all become numb to this new reality and guns are so freely available we have normalized a world where the gun counter at my local Fleet Farm is literally the largest department in the store. A customer can select a hand gun, rifle or shot gun and ammo to match at any price point, caliber and purpose. And why do we need so many choices and such freedom? Woe unto thee, woe to thee, those framers of the constitution, that never could have imagined this future that we have created.
Woe Unto Thee, Manhattan
by Allen Ginsburg
Woe unto thee, Manhattan, woe to thee,
Woe unto all the cities of the world.
Repent, Chicagos, O repent; ah, me!
Los Angeles, now thou art gone so wild,
I think thou art still mighty, yet shall be,
As the earth shook, and San Francisco fell,
An angel in an agony of flame.
City of horrors, New York so much like Hell,
How soon thou shalt be a city-without-name,
A tomb of souls, and a poor broken knell.
Fire and fire on London, Moscow shall die,
And Paris her livid atomies be rolled
Together into the Woe of the blazing bell–
All cities then shall toll for their great fame.