“Sphincter” by Allen Ginsberg

I first read this poem in college when a professor gave me a copy of Cosmopolitan Greetings. I wasn’t crazy about the book, so I cashed it in at a used bookstore for credit. While flipping through a Ginsberg anthology today I came across this poem again, and I have to admit, I’m even less impressed than when I first read it.

The poem is basically an ode to his asshole. He speaks frankly about the pleasures of sodomy, as well as his concerns about AIDS and other possible issues that he may encounter as he ages. While I applaud his courage to express himself openly, I just found the poem itself to be a weaker version of what he did so brilliantly in his earlier works, particularly “Howl.” It was almost like he was trying to jump the shark here. I really get the impression that he was going for shock value more than artistic expression, which is sad. It seems like he was grasping for the relevancy of his earlier poems, but instead he comes across as an old guy still trying to be hip.

I personally feel that Ginsberg is one of the most important poets of his time, and maybe that is another reason why this poem is so disappointing to me. I just don’t sense his unique voice here. But, you may feel differently. Click here to read the poem online and feel free to share your thoughts.


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6 responses to ““Sphincter” by Allen Ginsberg

  1. I can’t say I’m overjoyed with the poem either. It made me a smile, I guess. I know when I write, sometimes I end up with something that isn’t brilliant poetry but I still feel I want to share for entertainment or as I kind of transition between poems. Maybe that’s what was going on here?

    • jeff japp

      You make a good point, Brice. When you’re prolific, it’s hard to be consistently good. I also like your idea about the “transition between poems.” Looking at it from that perspective, I can read it as a glimpse of what he must have been dealing with as he transitioned into a new stage of his life. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Jeff, having known Allen for 20 years, “shock value” was the last thing on his mind, and particularly so late in his life when he wrote this poem. If anything, he was going for the completely opposite effect: by talking about something that is supposed to be outrageously shameful and disgusting in the same ordinary, unruffled manner in which another poet might write about tending his garden, he was trying to create un-shock value — the ability to talk about any human experience without shame, embarrassment, or hesitation. He was well aware that this was a goofy poem (you could hear that in his voice when he read it), but his intent was not goofy. We all have sphincters, and spend a bunch of time in our lives, every day, dealing with them and taking care of them, particularly as we age. Yet if Martian anthropologists read poetry anthologies to determine the facts of life on Earth, the fact that we all walk around with these things would be news to them. Allen wanted all of human experience — whether “exalted” or “shameful” — to have a place in poetry.

    • jeff japp

      Hey Steve. Thanks for your comment! What I love about poetry, and art in general, is that it is open for interpretation. It speaks to each of us differently based upon our experiences and personalities. Clearly, your connection to Allen gives you a different perspective than mine, since I never met him and have only read his poetry. I really appreciate you sharing your insights. Cheers!

  3. Genelle

    I’m not sure I really have an authority to speak on it, but I don’t mind that humor can be involved in poetry. This is one of my favorite pieces to perform by Allen Ginsberg. The laughter is a welcome break at most readings, where the audience is expected to sit and enjoy passively; it lets the audience off the hook in a refreshing way. My feeling about it is this: Ginsberg was one of the few poets out there who seemingly could laugh about himself, his insecurities, his sexuality; its a refreshing break from the seriousness of most queer writing that focuses almost exclusively on oppression. Ginsberg’s work portrays him as queer, he’s really never closeted in a time when it was par for the course to be, and you can see throughout the breadth of his career an increasing relaxed attitude towards the fact. But this isn’t really about being queer, though it also is; its about an aging man concerned about the body and how it will sure up during the later years of life; I think its something most aging people can relate to. The body starts to fall apart, and one wonders if one can still enjoy the good things in life. Sex after sixty is a pretty taboo subject still today, and it really doesn’t have to be. So when Ginsberg can talk so frankly about his concerns of his body, it cuts through that taboo.

    • Hi Genelle! Thank you so much for your comment, and yes, you do have authority to speak, in my humble opinion.

      I really appreciate your insights. When I read this (a while back), I did not approach it in the way you did. I’m inspired to go back and read it again. Poetry is always open for interpretation, and your experiences affect how you interpret it. Thankfully, I have not begun to fall apart… yet. Hopefully when it happens, I will have Ginsberg’s lightheartedness. 🙂