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A Supermarket in California -- Allen Ginsberg

(Poem #244) A Supermarket in California
    What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the
streets 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?
    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 an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
    (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel
    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?
-- Allen Ginsberg
A brilliantly hallucinatory poem - the images are almost Blakean in their
combination of dazzling brightness and strange mysticism... I keep thinking of
this marvellous photograph I once saw of Brian Wilson [1] in pinstriped pyjamas,
looking sublimely peaceful, in the aisle of a California health food store...

Allen Ginsberg has always shown remarkable facility in capturing the rhythms of
speech and action in sprawling and baroque (but never flabby) acres of words.
This quality is especially pronounced in today's poem: in paying homage to his
spiritual forebear Walt Whitman, Ginsberg comes closer to Whitman's grand oral
tradition than any other 20th century American poet (with the possible exception
of Carl Sandburg). You have only to compare the ebb and flow of his masterpiece
'Howl' [2] with the works of other practitioners of the art to realise how
effortlessly natural and graceful Ginsberg's words are. Beautifully and
powerfully done.


[1] He of Beach Boys fame.
[2] Which, unfortunately, is far too long to use on the Minstrels... maybe I'll
run an extract from it some time...

[Critical Assessment]

Starting from William Carlos Williams' idea of a new American idiom and measure,
then reaching back to Whitman, Ginsberg arrived at what he calls his 'romantic
inspiration -- Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath'. What this means ... is the
freedom to be exuberant and incantatory, to catalogue at will, and to employ
free association of ideas in the context of sweeping religious utterance.
Ultimately, Ginsberg is the natural heir to Whitman, in his further exploration
of Whitman's long line [as in today's poem - t.], and in his preoccupation with
transcending the ego by containing, or partaking of, all experience, in a kind
of osmosis of the imagination.

... [Ginsberg] wanted to create a poetry that would not be literary, but would
make full use of everything in our daily lives. "When you approach the Muse,
talk as frankly as you would with yourself or your friends".

    -- 20th Century Poetry and Poetics, ed. Gary Geddes


Allen Ginsberg was born in 1926, in Paterson, New Jersey, to Naomi Ginsberg, a
Russian immigrant, and Louis Ginsberg, a lyric poet and schoolteacher. His life
from age seventeen until the publication of 'Howl and Other Poems' in 1956
included Columbia University, the merchant service, dishwashing, market
research, book reviewing, drugs, and travel to Texas, Denver, Mexico City and
the Yucatan. Between 'Howl' and 'Kaddish and Other Poems' (1961), Ginsberg
travelled to the Arctic by sea, to Venice, Tangiers, Amsterdam, Paris and
London, and read his poems at Oxford, Columbia and Chicago. After 'Kaddish', a
long poem written about the death of his mother, he recorded his poems in San
Francisco and departed for the Orient.


This is actually the first Ginsberg poem I'm running (I know, very remiss of
me). But you can check out some of his roots and influences by navigating
through the links below:
Carl Sandburg's Chicago is the canonical example of Whitmanesque free verse in
the 20th century; you can read it at poem #5
William Blake's influence on modern poetry is incalculable; my favourite Blake
poem is Jerusalem, which you can read at poem #26
Although we haven't covered any of Walt Whitman's truly epic poems, an old
favourite is Oh Captain, My Captain, at poem #157

63 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

JABAMASA2 said...

I am having a hard time trying to interpret this poem, I've gone over it many
times but still confused to the meaning he is trying to across.
Could you explain this to me.


ButtryL said...

Could somebody please help me with the meaning of this poem? I think I have
some of it, but it is driving me crazy! Maybe that was Ginsberg's intentions
(lol) Really I would appreciate any help from anyone who understands the
meaning (ASAP)


Michelle said...

I am reading this poem for school, and would like to know the true meaning
of it, is there anyone that can help me out??

michael young said...


I just stopped by your web site and read the poem "A Supermarket in California" by allen ginsberg. Do you know anyone who wants to e-mail me about interpretating this poem.

thanks for your assistance and reply,


michael young said...


Just stopped by the allen ginsberg website. Do you have any interpretations on his poem "A Supermarket in California"? Or where I can find any interpretations.


Calonje said...

I'm just like everyone else here, what does this poem mean man. I need to know for my class . Anyone? God ? anyone? Alright peace.

Calonje said...

i read on a comment on another web site and it said that Ginsberg makes a plea to his peers about his homosexulaity. And this poem is infused with a sense of hiding store dective and Ginsberg is an outsider. Trying to figure out where does he fit amongs all those familes in the market. I hope this help. If you have any info i'll let me knoe thanks.bye

bea said...

I'm doing an essay on this poem for university.

It's hard to interpret as I think part of Ginsberg's entire attitude towards 'making it new' (as Pound said) was to leave out deep, sentimental content. However, with his allusions to Whitman, he is basicly praising him as the 'dear father' of radical poetic form and language experimentation, as well as having a political voice. You should bear in mind that Ginsberg experimented with drugs and may well have been under the influence when writing this, hence firey descriptions such as "neon fruit". "What America did you have. . ." makes sense, as Whitman wrote 100 years before Ginsberg. They both felt resentment towards the corruption of the modern world. Ginsberg was gay; this affected his view of society as being rigid and unjust; therefore he rejected it...It is nostalgic, inspiring and outrageous at the same time...a true stream of consciousness.
Hope that helped a bit; I think just writing that to you helped me!
Good luck,

Rachel Rein said...

Quite a few people have asked what the meaning is of this poem. Here is what I believe:
I believe that this poem is at once a commentary on Whitman and America. Moreover, I think that Ginsberg is using Whitman's confusion and social simplicity to juxtapose the complexities and mechanization of modern America. "Who killed the porkchops?" goes back to a time when a person would actually know who killed your porkchop. If not you, then the seller; in either way, there was at most 3 degrees of separation. There is no way of knowing now who killed your porkchop.
Your apple is still an apple, but it's a very scientifically managed apple.
The supermarket is a gathering place, and it's a good symbol of America. It's common, found in every town, and is quite often thought of as the social hubub. Whitman's egalitarian "Are you my angel?" is asked because really, why not ask in the supermarket? What is the difference between this place and, say, a club, or a church? Whitman was a man of the common people; his litanys focused mainly on people previously ignored. He believed that these men and women could show the reality of American life; he believed that you could indeed ask "are you my angel" where these people were and find your answer. Ginsberg realizes this, and by placing Whitman in the supermarket recognizes that if Whitman was to frequent any place in modern America, it would most likely be the supermarket.

-Rachel Rein

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