Ginsberg & Oppenheimer

Allen Ginsberg completed his nuclear protest poem “Plutonian Ode” on this day in 1978, and the first atomic bomb test took place sixty-six years ago this week–July 16, 1945. J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead physicist of the Manhattan Project, said that he christened both the site and the atomic test “Trinity” in reference to John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV,” which imagines a man and world violently remade:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for you
As yet but knock; breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new….

Ginsberg’s poem also imagines violence, but the kind made by God-playing   Frankensteins and Strangeloves:

…O heavy heavy Element awakened I vocalize your con-
   sciousness to six worlds
I chant your absolute Vanity.  Yeah monster of Anger
   birthed in fear O most
Ignorant matter ever created unnatural to Earth! Delusion
   of metal empires!
Destroyer of lying Scientists! Devourer of covetous
   Generals, Incinerator of Armies & Melter of Wars!
Judgement of judgements, Divine Wind over vengeful
   nations, Molester of Presidents, Death-Scandal of
   Capital politics! Ah civilizations stupidly indus-
   trious!….

Biographies of Oppenheimer portray him as a complex, contradicted man, and something of a poet himself. His love of poetry became well known when, in a 1965 interview, he famously claimed that his first reaction to the bomb test was a recollection of a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The award-winning biography American Prometheus(Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, 2005) wonders if Oppenheimer’s recollection was another of his “priestly exaggerations” and suggests that a first reaction from one of  Oppenheimer’s colleagues is more reliable: “Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.” But American Prometheus also reports that, two days before the test, a nervous and exhausted Oppenheimer recited to his colleagues a stanza from the Bhagavad-Gita that he had translated from the Sanskrit himself:

In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.



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