A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg


Introduction

Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” written in 1955 and published the following year, is a protest poem aimed at postwar American culture that focuses on consumerist features of society and the lack of connection between the contemporary world and nature. “A Supermarket in California” is written in prose and does not follow any typical metre or rhyme scheme, resulting in a striking and unusual poem that is guaranteed to stand out, which is just what a protester would want. Ginsberg quickly introduces the theme of materialism by “shopping for images” In this scenario, the images are not real since he wishes for society to return to its pre-war state during Whitman’s time. In this statement, the supermarket also communicates the idea of capitalist America, where the fruit is mass-manufactured to be uniform and is not always produced in the wild. The next lines explain how families are now shopping at night rather than during the day. It is implied that these families are perfect nuclear families, and anyone who does not fit into the family structure stands out as different from society and abnormal. This poem’s characters include Gracia Lorca, Walt Whitman, and the speaker himself, Allen Ginsberg, all of whom are homosexuals who have lost their position in society. In our day and age, the homosexual community is never discussed and is not acceptable by societal norms, as it may have been in Whitman’s time. Whitman is identified as a homosexual by Ginsberg because he is depicted as a “childless, lonely, old grubber” rather than a husband. Whitman is probably included in the poem to contrast what Whitman described America to be in his poetry with what America has become in Ginsberg’s poetry.

These are the lines “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas?” posing economic questions. A consumer in Whitman’s day would know where their food came from, who killed it, and how it was priced. It is implied that the store staff were unable to answer Whitman’s questions. Ginsberg is arguing that, as a result of consumerism, we no longer know what we are purchasing and, as a result, are no longer connected to nature through the products offered at a supermarket. Ginsberg also uses Whitman’s tasting spree across the store to demonstrate that there was no capitalism in Whitman’s day that required you to always pay for your joys. It is implied here that paying for one’s pleasures is not natural. The line “the doors close in an hour” indicates that Ginsberg is beginning to recognise that his image of Whitman’s vision of the natural world will not continue because it cannot compete with the modern economy in which everything has a price. Their journey through “solitary streets” (10) and past emblems of “the lost America” (11), as depicted by Whitman in his poems, will only bring them to the total darkness and loneliness of today’s civilization. Ginsberg concludes the poem with a comparison of “the lost America” (11) to Hades. Charon was Hades’ guardian, ferrying souls across the river Styx. Charon came to a halt and let Whitman out on Lethe is “smoking bank” (12). According to Greek mythology, individuals who drank from the river Lethe would become forgetful. Ginsberg may be alluding to modern civilization and how it forgets its past, as well as the distinction between what is natural and what is a product of humans. This is what binds Ginsberg’s anti-modern America protest together. The supermarket peach, pork chops, and bananas no longer create a connection between the consumer and the natural world from which the food originated.


Summary of the Poem

The poem, like an ode, begins with an address in which the speaker (who could be the author himself) invokes Walt Whitman’s name. The speaker’s mind is thinking about Walt Whitman, and he is conversing with the older poet (who died in 1892). At the start of the poem, we see the speaker walking down the side streets of California on a beautiful night. He is physically uneasy; he is tired and has a headache.

Psychologically, he appears to be depressed as well, since he dreams about Whitman’s “enumerations” and seeks “images.” His investigation brings him to a “neon/fruit supermarket.” Remember that Whitman’s poetry comprises lengthy lists (enumerations) of individuals, objects, events, and phenomena.
The speaker expects to discover something organic in the supermarket, yet the term ‘neon (a chemical element that reacts with nothing) fruit supermarket’ appears to undermine the speaker’s hope. In some ways, the speaker is returning to the past, to Whitman’s representation of history, in search of solutions to the economic and social ills that the modern world has brought up. As he walks into the grocery, he can not help but exclaim, “What peaches and what penumbras!” ‘Peach’ is a fruit, while ‘penumbra’ is a shadowy area. That is to say, while the fruits and vegetables on display in the supermarket are organic and appear to represent nature and domestic life, beneath them lurk secrets (shadow); beneath the displays of nature and domesticity, there are dark secrets that represent the harsh realities that industrialization has brought with it. The speaker continues by referring to families — husbands, wives, and newborns — who are “shopping late at night.” The term “night” expands on the sense conveyed by the word “penumbras.” The first stanza concludes with a reference to Garcia Lorca, a Spanish socialist poet and Whitman admirer.

The speaker enters the grocery thinking about Whitman, but in the second stanza, we see his imagined encounter with Whitman. “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking/amid the meats in the fridge and eyeing the grocery boys,” he adds. Whitman, in contrast to the families portrayed in the previous stanza, is single and childless. ‘Poking amid the meats’ and ‘eyeing the supermarket lads’ appear to have sexual overtones, and sexual allusions were common in Whitman’s poetry. In fact, he was said to have gay tendencies.

Lorca, surprisingly, shared similar interests. Whitman’s queries in the middle of the stanzas appear to reflect the closeness and familiarity that existed between people during his day. People might ask about the specifications of the food they purchased at the time, and merchants could also answer queries like, “Who killed the pork chops?/ What price bananas?” Such questions, however, do not need to be asked in Ginsberg’s supermarket, and even if they are, the storekeeper or salespersons do not appear to know the answers. Customers collect their items and leave in a mechanical manner. It is a place devoid of human feelings such as friendship, warmth, and compassion. Another calamitous result of industrialization! The supermarket represents a civilization devoid of humanity.

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Nonetheless, Whitman appears to offer the speaker a vision of a way of life that is beautiful and above the drabness of mass consumerism. The speaker follows Whitman throughout the shop, and while in the latter’s company, the former tastes “artichokes” and acquires “every frozen delicacy.” The statement “We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy” is essential because the speaker and Whitman may build a company based on a sense of freedom, love, and bonding that the other consumers in the supermarket do not have. In other words, the poet and speaker express their liberation by surreptitiously tasting the artichokes without paying for them, “never passing the cashier.” It is the kind of living that Whitman has always praised in his poems as matching the natural world. The speaker and Whitman appear unfazed and outside the expectations of a highly commercialised supermarket where currency, payment, profit, and loss, among other things, are highly valued.

However, the third and final stanza shatters this brief moment of connection and freedom. The stanza opens with the speaker’s question: “Where are we going, Walt Whitman?” “The doors will be closed in an hour.” The speaker has to leave the supermarket before it closes, and with that, he understands, his fictitious friendship with Whitman comes to an end. The exquisite manner of life afforded by his fictional company with Whitman in the supermarket, the thrill of unfettered/secret enjoyment, suddenly appears unrealistic. Outside the supermarket, the speaker is confronted with the modern world of mass culture, competition, and commoditization of human beings. Everything is for sale and must be paid for. He now thinks his voyage to the supermarket was “absurd.” Whitman’s concept of a natural world/society and natural man appears impossible in today’s industrialised environment. Their walk through the quiet streets outside the supermarket will only lead to loneliness. The harsh realities of a highly industrialised modern civilization keep them from fantasising about the lost America of love, where they could be content in their silent cottage. Blue sedans and driveways, emblems of consumer culture, will remind them of the rigorously compartmentalised, conformist, and coldly formal lives of modern nuclear families. Members of these families are unable to recall any encounters with a visionary poet who has passed away. His America was based on love and had not devolved into a consumerist society.

In the poem’s final four lines, the speaker compares America to Hades, the fabled land of the dead. Charon is the ferryman in Greek mythology who would ferry the dead across the river Styx to their ultimate resting place in the Underworld in his boat. The poem’s final lines appear to imply that Whitman’s journey to eternity aboard the boat was incomplete, as “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.” (Lethe is one of Hades’ five rivers.) If you drink its water, you will lapse into absolute forgetfulness). Moderns, victims of capitalism and materialism, which Whitman foresaw many years ago, have forgotten him. He is abandoned on a smouldering bank and becomes a forgotten hero. In a consumerist society, the old world that the poet, “courage teacher,” sang about has lost its importance.

Detailed Analysis

“A Supermarket in California” written in 1955, was published the following year in Howl and Other Poetry, Allen Ginsberg’s controversial and innovative anthology of poems that is often regarded with launching the Beat movement. Jack Kerouac created the term “Beat” to denote both “beat down” and “beatitude.” It was intended to express the discontent and spiritual tiredness of a generation that grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.

“A Supermarket in California” a whimsical, almost humorous poem, addresses Ginsberg’s own relationship to Walt Whitman, the nineteenth-century American poet widely regarded as the father of modern poetry and one of Ginsberg’s literary idols. The speaker in this poem, as in most of Ginsberg’s poems, is Ginsberg himself (rather than a poetic persona), and he utilises the supermarket as a symbolic backdrop for fantasising about the potential that America provides and mourning the country that it has instead become.

“A Supermarket in California” one of Ginsberg’s most often anthologized shorter poems, not only acknowledges Ginsberg’s debt to Whitman’s image of America as a place of promise and abundance but also allows Ginsberg to situate himself (more explicitly) in a legacy of gay authors. When Ginsberg writes, “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys,” he is alluding to the homoerotic longing that pervades Whitman’s own writing. One of the numerous opportunities provided by Whitman’s poetry for Ginsberg was the ability to be publicly gay in America.

The poem’s main focus, however, is the moral choice that America must make. Will it continue to be a world of acquisitiveness, empty material values, and alienated individuals, as Ginsberg suggests in this and other poems? Will America, on the other hand, recognise its inherent spirituality and embrace the potential of living in a truly human community? Ginsberg inquires, “Walt Whitman, where are we going? In one hour, the doors will close. Tonight, which way does your beard point?” At the end of this poem, Ginsberg is worried and looking to Whitman for answers.

“A Supermarket in California” included in Howl and Other Poems, continued the volume’s recognition and success. After selling out the first edition (printed by Villiers in England), a portion of the second printing of Howl was seized by US Customs officers in San Francisco, who claimed the writing was obscene. Charges were dismissed and the book was released after a series of hearings in which the book’s societal relevance was debated. “Howl” makes up the most of the book, and “A Supermarket in California” is one of the shorter “other” poems in the collection, which also includes “In the Baggage Room at Greyhound,” “Sunflower Sutra,” and “America.” “a formalised paraphrase Thomas Merrill says in Allen Ginsberg that “A Supermarket in California” symbolises Ginsberg’s own uncertainty with America, as he seeks to reconcile his own hope for and despair about the country. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the poet to refrain from shopping. “Here is a poet as consumer filling his shopping cart for the ingredients of this art among ‘Aisles full of husbands! ‘” Merrill writes number two.

In a mixed review published in the Sewanee Review in 1957, poet and critic James Dickey claim that Ginsberg lacks a sense of craft in “Howl” stating that anyone may be a poet. “In each case, the needed equipment is very simple,” Dickey says, “a life, with its memories, frustrations, secret wishes … an ability to write elementary prose and to supply it with rather more exclamation points than might normally be called for” Dickey then questions Ginsberg’s attitude toward poetry itself. “”Confession is not enough,” he says, “and neither is the idea that the reality of one’s experience will emerge if one can only keep talking in a whipped-up state of enthusiasm long enough.” More than this is required to create poetry. It simply does.” 3

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Michael Davidson focuses on the undercurrent of “A Supermarket in California” in his book The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century, arguing that Whitman serves as an alter ego for Ginsberg, “who himself is ‘self-conscious’ and ‘shopping for images. “‘ Davidson interprets Ginsberg’s invocation of Whitman as a remark on Ginsberg’s personal sexual alienation, writing that “emphasises that this loneliness is also the historical loneliness of the homosexual who is denied the opportunity to participate in the bounty of ‘normal’ American life. ” 4

The poem’s popularity can be attributed in part to its shortness and content. Unlike “Howl” “A Supermarket in California” can be printed on a single page, and its royalties are significantly lower than those of the lengthy work. “A Supermarket in California” also touches on many of the themes that occur in Ginsberg’s lengthier poems, including the spiritual desolation of America, homoeroticism, the influence of the past (particularly Walt Whitman’s influence), and the isolation of the modern individual. These qualities, together with the attention generated by Ginsberg’s recent death, continue to make the poem appealing to anthologists.

Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California” laments the recent demise of Walt Whitman’s great literary vision, which he expressed one hundred years previously in “Song of Myself” ‘5. Whitman had artistically placed himself in the centre of the cosmos as if he were a radiant node in which the smallest and humblest creature shared equal space with the night sky’s brightest stars. Whitman’s poems frequently enumerate objects, people, places, and names in long, fluid, un-rhymed lines borrowed from the King James Bible. Along with his poetry form improvements, he also featured a considerably broader range of subject matter, some of which was considered lyrically improper at the time, such as sex and the body, depictions of physical pain and death, and pictures of common work and slavery. Whitman saw the mid-nineteenth-century American democracy as a political consequence of his poetry. Open, democratic, tolerant, welcoming, ever-questioning, and enormous in scope, American poetry and politics were to be. Whitman portrayed himself as conversing with every point in the universe, moving poetically outward through a succession of widening concentric rings: the body, the city, the American country, the world, and the universe. Ginsberg begins “A Supermarket in California” by introducing himself as considering this beautiful democratic panorama of poetry and subsequently as clutching a collection of Whitman’s poetry. Ginsberg cynically and humorously tests himself against Whitman’s grandiose lyrical self-depiction and compares Whitman’s ideal perspective of America with what it had actually become in the era of anti-communist witch-hunts, preprocessed food, television advertising, and nuclear bombs.

Ginsberg, writing a century after Whitman, is inspired by the bard’s vision of a passionately democratic America sung by new, public poetry. But he is significantly less sure that this vision can be realised, either by the mid-twentieth-century American consumer society or by the young poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg expresses his concerns in a variety of ways. Most importantly, he exploits the actual setting of his poem in a symbolic way. Whereas Whitman’s best-known poetry is set in the bustle of Manhattan, on the open road, or by the sea, Ginsberg’s location is far more humble, almost suburban: a large-chain grocery store. Ginsberg has brought Whitman’s expansive poetry of the outdoors indoors. What was previously open land is now fenced in and heavily policed. Ginsberg can no longer “loiter ” and “loaf” (two verbs Whitman uses to describe how he observes the American scene) in the tight confines of the supermarket. Its shelves of cans and aisles jam-packed with carts and shopping families are a poor substitute for the hustle and bustle of the city and roads that Whitman admired, and wary personnel are on the lookout for the dreamy, wandering poet at every step to ensure he is not thieving. If in his poetic dream of comradeship with Whitman, Ginsberg can stride “down the open corridors” of the supermarket, tasting the fruit and frozen food and not paying, this only serves to remind his reader how much life in 1950s America was hemmed in by disapproving “detectives” and “cashiers” by the power of the law and the almighty dollar.

Ginsberg also moves away from Whitman’s normal imagery of labour and creation and toward pictures of spending money and consuming. Whitman, for example, presents a figure who might still be seen, in a different guise, in Ginsberg’s supermarket in section 12 of “Song of Myself”: “The butcher-boy puts off his killing-clothes or sharpens his knife at the stall in the market, / I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle and break-down. ” The poet observes the working boy pause in his task and listens to him chit-chat with his coworkers. In Ginsberg’s poem, Whitman is portrayed as a lonely gay cruiser, surrounded mostly by-products for sale and consumption rather than the activity of producing: “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys, and I heard you asking each: Who killed the pork chops? How much do bananas cost? Are you my Guardian Angel?” Whitman’s previous poem’s marketplace labour of the butcher-boy is nowhere to be found in the current supermarket, simply pre-cut and packaged meat shining unnaturally under fluorescent lights. Bananas from Latin America, meanwhile, disguise the effort of planting and collecting them beneath an abstract price tag. Even the “Angel,” as a symbol of pure spirit without a body, is a type of deceptive title applied to a much more earthly longing of the body. Each question Whitman presents here implies a kind of absence and disembodied existence, revealing the artificially illuminated “neon fruit supermarket” to be the polar opposite of Whitman’s praised “body electric” in “I Sing the Body Electric.” Furthermore, by incorporating covert sexual allusions into his imagery, Ginsberg’s poem implies that even the lads that Whitman once lyrically presented at work have become one more consumable thing among the “meat” and “fruit.” for him. Ginsberg even has elderly queer Whitman inquire about the price of bananas, playfully encouraging obvious but dumb Freudian interpretations of his poem.

This change from work to consumption is also represented in Ginsberg’s presentation of himself in the poem. He meets the shadow of Whitman in a state of physical and poetic vacancy: hungry and fatigued, he goes “shopping for food,” and poetically uninspired, he goes “shopping for images.” Ginsberg goes to the market for literary resources in the same way that Whitman went to labour among the working men of the marketplace to gain experience for his poems. Unlike Whitman’s individuals, there are only two individualised figures among these strangely glowing vegetables and pork chops, and they are both the ghosts of dead gay poets: the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by fascists during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, and Walt Whitman. Whereas Lorca was able to link himself and his poetry with the liberation aspirations of the entire Spanish people, and Whitman was able to mirror back to his American audience an idealised image of their democratic life,

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Ginsberg has become a social splinter, with only ghosts as actual companions. He is left with only solo parts to play: a late-night shopper, a lonely gay guy without a lover, and an American poet without an audience. Furthermore, even the “representative” poets Whitman and Lorca are now simply ghosts, and their claim to be the voice of their people is based purely on their poetry’s capacity to induce conviction in later readers and authors like Ginsberg. Their prestige no longer depends on what they produce as poets, but rather on how their work will be ‘consumed’ in their absence and under the sign of their signature “by the generations that come after them

The wonderful final verse brings home the full effect of what has been lost in the century since Whitman declared his “America of love” Ginsberg, situating himself in a long tradition of visionary poetry, makes Whitman his guide into the regions of the dead, just as Dante took the Latin poet Virgil as his guide through hell in the Divine Comedy centuries before. Ginsberg expresses his knowledge of his own death by conjuring the supermarket’s closing time, hoping that his own poetry, guided by Whitman’s, will serve him in that time when he will no longer need to shop for either food or images: “Walt Whitman, where are we going? In one hour, the doors will close. Tonight, which way does your beard point?” Even as he poses this important topic, he questions whether he may legitimately employ the heightened poetic rhetoric of the visionary tradition. In comparison to the fall into the underworld that is a crucial chapter in Homer’s epic Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and again in Dante’s Inferno, Ginsberg’s small-case “odyssey” amid ghosts in the supermarket appears both self-consciously literary (“I touch your book”) and manufactured (“and feel absurd”).

These reservations, expressed parenthetically in the second line, are powerfully answered by the sheer elegiac force of the final three lines, in which Ginsberg struggles to convince himself and his readers of his right to place himself, even before death, in the visionary company of Whitman, thus anticipating his posthumous fame as the elder poet’s heir. The closing lines combine two effects that work in tandem to give the poem’s conclusion an amazing resonance. Ginsberg narrows the visual focus to the two poets, Whitman and Ginsberg, and closes with their full disappearance in blackness and smoke, almost like a stage manager overseeing a fade-out. At the same time, these final lines have a powerful outward movement, as if we were watching them walk away from us until they were no longer visible. The first of the three ultimate lines juxtaposes these effects, allowing us to observe how Ginsberg, with great skill, brings them together in the long concluding line. “Will we walk all night through solitary streets?” gives the lyric its broad sweep, while the sentence that follows narrows the lights to a single focus: “The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.” Following this descent into near-darkness, the following line re-establishes the forward momentum: “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?” Ginsberg then invokes four brief dips of the oars and a long glide over three printed lines without a comma break up to the question mark that closes the poem, as though replicating the movement of Charon’s boat, ferryman into the underworld, over the river Lethe is water of forgetfulness: “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?”

However, the lovely finale does not entirely eliminate the poem’s worries about poetry’s power to connect with a greater community and thereby transcend isolation, loneliness, and death. Despite Ginsberg’s poignant evocation of his poetic son’s link with father Whitman and his deep admiration for his lonely old “courage-teacher,” this personal and ghostly society of gay poets is no longer Whitman’s idealised “America of love.” In essence, Ginsberg contends that time has proven Whitman’s amatory America to be a myth and that it is no longer a viable source of inspiration for a poet aspiring to follow in Whitman’s footsteps. In the final line, Ginsberg questions his great predecessor, “What America was left to you to turn into poetic myth when the last spark of your consciousness was extinguished by death?” Is there anything left of that former America for me to maintain in your honour, Allen Ginsberg? Beyond the final question mark, the answer remains a mystery. However, Ginsberg’s conclusion on the word “Lethe,” which means “forgetfulness,” hints at his pessimism: America, it appears, cannot be turned everlasting by poetry, even the finest poetry. It could be that it has already faded into obscurity.

Questions and Answers of  “A Supermarket in California”.

Q. Can you prepare a list of the objects that Ginsberg gives in the poem?
Answer. For example, the last three lines of the first stanza contain a list; you may also make a list of the phrases that the poet uses to describe Whitman.

Q. What is the main theme of the poem?
Answer. You will find the answer to this question in the section ‘ Analysis of the poem.’

Q. What can you say about the stanza form of the poem?
Answer. The Stanzas resemble the stanzas written by Whitman; the number of lines in the stanzas varies; lines are long.

Q. Pick out any two images/symbols from the poem and briefly state their significance.
Answer. The Supermarket itself is a symbol (read the section ‘Aspects of technique’ Carefully); the ‘blue automobile’ in the third stanza can be considered as a symbol of the consumerist society.

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