rough notes

Ginsberg, Whitman, and America in "A Supermarket in California"

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Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California”.
Berkeley, 1955.

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 the questions of each: who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant staks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasking artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the 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 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?


disjointed thoughts on Ginsberg, Whitman, and America.

Whitman Ginsberg

I saw you Walt Whitman, in amoung the peaches and penumbras! I was recently re-acquainted with Ginsberg’s “Supermarket”, and was struck once more by the force and authority found in his confrontation of the myth of the American Dream. Invoking for his muse the ghost Walt Whitman, a patriarch of American poetry and the myth of Nation, Ginsberg attacks the Dream as the greatest lost cause of the twentieth century.

There may be some hyperbole contained in that statement – the American Dream as the greatest lost cause – but it is not without merit. Even if the Dream does exist, Ginsberg makes clear how difficult it is to find, let alone it is to achieve, for both middle America and those on its fringe. Thinking about Whitman, the great poet who asserts independence and identity through both sexuality and landscape, Ginsberg questions the value of an “Americanness” based on shopping for mass-produced items in a unnatural, corporate supermarket far removed from a person’s or nation’s soul. Ginsberg’s post-war America is a nation of late-night grocery shoppers who do nothing with their time but consider the ripeness of peaches and avacodos in the neon glow of their local supermarket. Ginsberg is shopping for an image, looking a perfect vignette of what America is, and all he finds are consumers, choosing one peach over the other when both come from the same share-cropped grove. Nature and authenticity are not necessarily effaced in this new America, but are definitely substituted with a different form. There is no natural light in Ginsberg’s America but only a chemical, neon glow.

What makes the poem so interesting is not necessarily Ginsberg’s criticism of the (false) American dream by situating its adherents to a lifestyle full of mass-market grocery stores and the same blue automobile in every garage, but the evocation of Whitman himself. Ginsberg speaks to Walt, and Walt returns by inserting himself into Ginsberg’s thoughts and into the poem, offering us a chance to consider an America defined by its margins. Both Whitman and Ginsberg lived in a sexual penumbra – neither poet allowed their sexuality to either lurk in the shadows, or be fully disclosed and normalized in full light. Ginsberg does, however, find a certain solace walking the neon-lit aisles with Whitman while eyeing the young clerks or considering suggestive foods such as artichokes and bananas. In this neon glare – neither shadow nor real “natural” light – Ginsberg can speak from the outside, from the margins, and declare the American Dream to be lost to those who are literary buying in, in the supermarket. The families shopping in the artifical glow of the supermarket’s lights are no better than the “degenerates” of the Beat Generation. Yet, just as America refuses to acknowledge the simple fact of Whitman’s homosexuality, and its importance to his poetry, the families refuse to acknowledge the artifice and inauthenticity of their national myth.

Disclaimer: These are not your thoughts. And this is not an academic site. Using them for your paper will not only be an instance of plagiarism, but also a moment of shoddy research that would grant you a very low grade if you managed to pass off the work as your own.
Like the rest of America, as Ginsberg caught on to, you are commodified.

Written by mitchellirons

January 20, 2008 at 4:18 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] bookmarks tagged suggestive Ginsberg, Whitman, and America in “A Supermarket… saved by 1 others     shugotenshineko bookmarked on 01/21/08 | […]

    Pages tagged "suggestive"

    January 21, 2008 at 7:43 am

  2. […] leave you with a great poem:  Ginsberg’s A Supermarket in California.  I’ve cited it once or twice in the past, so you may have seen me post this clip before.  It came to mind yesterday after a great […]

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    January 12, 2016 at 2:01 am

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