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“A Supermarket in California” was written by the eminent American poet and philosopher Allen Ginsberg. It is a story that pays homage to Walt Whitman on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of “Leaves of Grass.”
It was initially released in 1956. The poem describes the speaker’s memorable encounters with Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garca Lorca and American poet, essayist, and journalist Walt Whitman. Allen uses the occasion of this hypothetical meeting to critique American popular culture. The poem also discusses disillusionment and love.
About the poet
American poet and author Irwin Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997) was vehemently opposed to war, economic materialism, and sexual repression. He criticized what he viewed as the harmful forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States in his best-known poem, “Howl.” He was a Buddhist who diligently studied the practices of Eastern religions and had a simple life.
He participated actively in political demonstrations on a variety of causes, such as the Vietnam War and the drug war. In 1974, he shared the National Book Award for Poetry with his collection The Fall of America, and in 1995, he was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize with his book Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992.
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, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
Ginsberg addresses Walt Whitman specifically in A Supermarket in California by using the apostrophe, even though Whitman had already passed away by the time Ginsberg penned it. The speaker tells Whitman in the opening sentence that he went to a store to buy pictures rather than food.
He refers to the store as a “neon fruit supermarket,” which makes his reader think of flashing lights and tempting goods. Given that most individuals make shopping lists before going food shopping, Ginsberg most likely intended to use the term enumeration. He is looking through his favorite poet’s works rather than a meal list.
The poem’s first stanza’s second half describes the items and people at the store that surround the speaker. This contrasts with the poem’s opening when the speaker appeared to be alone. Families go shopping together as well as peaches and penumbras.
The speaker also addresses Garcia Lorca, another poet who passed away and was executed at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Ginsberg conveys the commotion taken on inside the grocery store by using a lot of exclamation points, a punctuation mark that is rare in poetry.
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.
According to the speaker in the second stanza of this poem, William Whitman was “poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” Whitman’s homosexuality was well known, and Ginsberg mentions this in the passage.
The speaker acknowledges that he followed Whitman around the store, asking various questions, the last of which was “Are you my Angel?” It almost seems as though Whitman is searching for some form of salvation—someone to save him from this horrible life. The speaker and his muse browse the shop for a while, tasting and touching every kind of food, but they never come across a cashier.
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an 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?
The third and last verse of William Wordsworth’s poem “The Odyssey” has a mood that is almost desolate as the speaker begs Whitman to explain where they will be traveling next. He acknowledges that he finds it “absurd” to have been stroking the poet’s book and daydreaming about their adventure while shopping, but he does not want the journey to come to an end.
As the rest of the city shuts down and goes to sleep, he wonders whether they won’t be wandering the streets by themselves and feeling lonely. By imagining a time when America was more straightforward and less preoccupied with material stuff, the speaker creates a barrier between himself and other Americans.
What was life like in America before “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?” he goes on to question Whitman. In these words, Ginsberg makes reference to two separate myths: The Lethe is a separate, more ominous river, and Charon is the ferryman who transports the dead across the River Styx and into Hades.