Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s. His poems often mix impressions from his life as a Jewish, homosexual intellectual in modern mid-century USA with Eastern mysticism and literary references.
In his prose poem “A Supermarket in California”, he places two famous poets, American Walt Whitman and Spanish surrealist Federico García Lorca, alongside himself in the very mundane setting of a contemporary (1950s) supermarket with its neon lights, stacks of cans, frozen foods and shopping families. It is Walt Whitman that he references most in the poem, not just by name, but by the very form, tone and content of the piece. Walt Whitman, who lived from 1810 to 1892, was a whole-heartedly American poet. He revelled in the images, people and landscapes of the young country that in his lifetime increased from 22 to 44 states to eventually cover the entire territory between the Atlantic and the Pacific and also went through the first major crisis of the Civil War, in which Whitman was involved as a nurse. Whitman strove to capture his country in his poetry – to write an American epic. HIs major work Leaves of Grass was published in 1855. It is a collection of poetry written in free verse and a cadence, a rhythmic pacing, based on bible verses. Also its scope is epic, as it covers all manners of professions and people, animals and objects, landscapes and activities of everyday life. Unlike most poets before him, he focused strongly on material objects and the mundane, and particularly the human body.
Ginsberg picks up this cadence and Whitman’s characteristic “enumerations” of objects and people in his own piece, but the images of cans, refrigerators and automobiles bring it forward into the 20th century. And what better place to locate the mid-20th century American soul than in a supermarket, in California? On the cusp of the Space Age, the wide, sunny spaces of California embodied the current American dream of a suburban house with modern appliances and a car in the driveway the better to reach the clean, cool temples of consumption, the supermarkets. Their abundance (especially in produce-rich California) of endless shelves and “brilliant stacks” of merchandise seem to showcase Whitman’s enumerations in real life.
Ginsberg, however, remains the outsider, fatigued, self-conscious and solitary, not partaking in the feast (“never passing the cashier”) but “shopping for images” only. He even imagines being followed by the store detective, as if not consuming was a crime. This is a veiled critique of the socio-economic paradigm , which also turns people into anonymous masses defined by their domestic roles (“aisles full of husbands, wives in the avocados”). A different country, an “America of love” that Ginsberg may have glimpsed through Whitman’s enthusiastic verses, seems now “lost” to him.
A Supermarket in California
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in a hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
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