Saturday, October 18, 2008


The Berkeley 1956 recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his then-unfinished poem "America" provides a nice demonstration of how hearing a poet read can alter one's sense of a poem. Lines that might seem grandiose or nostalgic on the page — "America save the Spanish Loyalists / America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die" — turn into one-liners in what comes close to a stand-up comedy routine. The audience cheers and laughs and stomps along the way.

"America" as Ginsberg reads it is looser and much longer than the poem as published in "Howl" and Other Poems (1956). One difference sent me to the dictionary today. In the poem as published, the poet recounts going to "Communist cell meetings" with his mother: "they sold us garbanzos a handful a ticket a ticket cost a nickel and the speeches were free." In the Berkeley reading, garbanzos is bubkes.

Before going to the dictionary, I knew that bubkes is Yiddish and means "nothing." My favorite instance of the word comes at the end of a song from Christopher Guest's film Waiting for Guffman (1997): "Bubkes ever happens in Blaine." So how did Ginsberg get from bubkes to garbanzos? Merriam-Webster Online explains:

Main Entry: bub·kes
Variant(s): also bup·kes or bup·kus \ˈbəp-kəs, ˈbu̇p-\
Function: noun plural but singular in construction
Etymology: Yiddish (probably short for kozebubkes, literally, goat droppings), plural of bubke, bobke, diminutive of bub, bob bean, of Slavic origin; akin to Polish bób bean
Date: 1942

: the least amount : beans < won't win bubkes this year — Ivan Maisel > ; also : nothing < received bubkes for their efforts >
It pleases me that the same metaphor is available in English, in another of my favorite films, the one in which "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans." My guess is that Ginsberg revised to avoid the possible obscurity of a word that most readers were likely to know bubkes about (and would have had difficulty looking up).

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