My pictures could have been more artful. But there I was, loitering in front of the frozen food cases, pretending to read the ingredients in a chicken pot pie, waiting for the aisle to empty, getting more nervous and paranoid by the second. I felt like I was doing something offensive to my fellow shoppers or maybe even illegal. So as quickly as I could, I pointed, clicked and split.
C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization
by Allen Ginsberg
Eat Eat more marbled Sirloin more Pork ‘n
Lard up the dressing, fry chicken in
Carry it dribbling to gray climes, snowed with
Little lambs covered with mint roast in rack
surrounded by roast potatoes wet with
Buttered veal medallions in creamy saliva
buttered beef, glistening mountains
of french fries
Stroganoffs in white hot sour cream, chops
soaked in olive oil
surrounded by olives, salty feta cheese, followed
by Roquefort & Bleu & Stilton
for wine, beer Cocacola Fanta Champagne
Pepsi retsina arak whiskey vodka
Agh! Watch out heart attack, pop more
order a plate of Bratwurst, fried frankfurters,
couple billion Wimpys’, MacDonald burger
to the moon & burp!
Salt on those fries! Boil onions
& breaded mushrooms even zucchini
in deep hot Crisco pans
Turkeys die only once,
look nice, next to tall white glasses
sugarmilk & icecream vanilla balls
Strawberrry for sweeter color milkshakes
with hot dogs
Forget greenbeans, everyday a few carrots,
a mini big spoonful of salty rice’ll
do, make the plate pretty;
throw in some vinegar pickles, briney sauerkraut
check yr. cholesterol, swallow a pill
and order a sugar Cream donut, pack 2 under
the size 44 belt
Pass out in the vomitorium come back cough
up strands of sandwich still chewing
pastrami at Katz’s delicatessen
Back to central Europe & gobble Kielbasa
swallow salami in Munich with beer,Liverwurst
on pumpernickel in Berlin, greasy cheese in
a 3 star Hotel near Syntagma, on white
Set an example for developing nations, salt,
sugar, animal fat, coffee tobacco Schnapps
Drop dead faster! make room for
Chinese guestworkers with alien soybean
curds green cabbage & rice!
Africans Latins with rice beans & calabash can
stay thin & crowd in apartments for working
class foodfreaks —
Not like western cuisine rich in protein
cancer heart attack hypertension sweat
bloated liver & spleen megaly
Diabetes & stroke — monuments to carnivorous
presently murdering Belfast
Bosnia Cypress Ngorno Karabach Georgia
mailing love letter bombs in
Vienna or setting houses afire
in East Germany — have another coffee,
here’s a cigar.
And this is a plate of black forest chocolate cake,
you deserve it.
Our western culture wavers between viewing gluttony as a virtue, in the mode of Eat, Pray, Love/Paula Dean/Barefoot Contessa, in which a big appetite signifies a big heart, a joyful spirit, a lust for life; and seeing it as sinful, hence our obsession with weight loss and disgust for the fatties on reality shows.
Condemnation of gluttony is nothing new. Sixth century Pope Gregory included gluttony in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, providing painters (see Hieronymous Bosch here) and writers ever since with rich material. In The Divine Comedy, Dante confined gluttons to the third circle of hell and described their fate as such: “In life they made no higher use of the gifts of God than to wallow in food and drink, producers of nothing but garbage and offal. Here they lie through all eternity, themselves like garbage, half-buried in the foetid slush, while Cerberus, the guardian, slavers over them as they in life slavered over their food.”
Ginsberg, a most unlikely ally to the moralists of old, subjects his gluttons not to hell but to heart attack and diabetes. He connects the excess fat, sugar, meat and salt of the western diet with violence, aggression and indifference to the less well-fed.
Old etchings like this one aim to curb gluttony with repulsive depictions of its punishment in hell. The poor gluttonous souls are forced to eat rats and toads. Ginsburg does the same by force-feeding us buttered veal medallions in creamy saliva till we pass out in the vomitorium and return to the table only to cough/ up strands of sandwich still chewing/pastrami.
But his sensibility is more Hieronymous Bosch than Dante-esque. Ginsberg is having a lot of fun here. His exuberance and energy spill out on the page. The poem is an explosion. It’s too much. Our diet is too much.
Like so much of Ginsberg’s work, “C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization” is written to be performed. Listen here and you’ll get a better sense of the humor and the helter-skelter, stuff-everything-in-your-mouth pace.
And then hang a copy on your refrigerator for aid in dieting or Lenten sacrifice.
To say anything about Allen Ginsburg feels tired and superfulous. Beloved by some, despised by others, he’s become a cultural touchstone, representative not only of the Beats, but of the LSD flying free ashram caftan flower power (he coined the phrase) sixties. Sometimes he seems more an historical event than an actual person. Yet his life fascinates me (can’t wait to see the James Franco movie) and a quick sketch is merited.
He was born in New Jersey in 1926 to Russian-Jewish parents. His mother was a sometimes-nudist and passionate Communist who took young Allen and his brother to party meetings. She was also an epileptic and a paranoid depressive. When Ginsberg was a junior in high school, she insisted he take her on the bus to a therapist. She didn’t come back. She spent the next fifteen years in mental institutions, subjected to electric shock, lobotomy and early death. Wow. He was just a boy, 15 or 16, and he had to escort his suffering mother to a prison of sorts. I just can’t get over that. I think of the deep and tender attachment teenage boys carry for their mothers, underneath all their bravado and separation struggles, and Ginsberg’s childhood just rips me up.
Growing up in such a household, it’s no surprise he was drawn to counter-culture. He was an outsider from the get-go. Besides, he was a gay man back in the dark ages for homosexuals. At Columbia he met up with Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady. They formed the Beats, the much-hipper and better dressed precursor to the hippies of the sixties. You can see Ginsberg and the other Beats in a movie they made with the delightful title Pull My Daisy (shown here with convenient Italian subtitles), a movie that’s been called a bohemian Seinfeld.
Ginsburg experimented with lots of drugs but by the early 60’s found he achieved the same altered state of consciousness with meditation and other practices of eastern religions. He stopped using drugs just as more and more people were starting to use them.
In 1955, he performed “Howl” for the first time. Poet Gary Synder characterized the historic performance as “a curious kind of turning point in American poetry.” Kerouac described the evening in On the Road (using fictitious names) this way: “everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes (Kenneth Rexroth) the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping tears in gladness.”
The attempt to suppress the poem in an obscenity trial backfired. Ginsburg became an international celebrity, and “Howl” has been translated into 23 languages.
Ginsberg used his fame and his charisma to advance his political causes. He was outspoken against the Vietnam War and an early advocate of gay rights and human rights around the world. He died in 1997 at age 71.