An Analysis of “A Supermarket in California”
Allen Ginsberg; philosopher, activist, poet, a man highly revered as a groundbreaking figure between the 1950’s Beat Poetry Generation and the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s (poetryarchive.org). Ginsberg’s first book “Howl and Other Poems,” was published in 1955, his work was involved in an illustrious obscenity trial because of the use of homosexuality in his work and its explicit content (poetryarchive.org).
This was a pivotal case for those defending free speech; the judgment was overturned due to the book’s “redeeming social importance,” thus setting the tone for his contentious career (poetry archive.
org). Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” was one of the “other poems” in this publication, seemingly a tribute to Ginsberg’s poetic hero and influence, Walt Whitman. This piece was an experiment of style and theme that would later dominate his career (Pagnattaro 1). It seems that the use of Whitman in this poem is a device, which the author used to contrast Walt’s idealism with his own cynical version of reality.
Ginsberg was expressing his disdain with the hypocrisy of modern American society’s “progress” and the bastardization of nature that happens as a symptom of mass consumerism. The reason why Ginsberg chose Walt Whitman to be his companion in “A Supermarket in California” is because his character adds polarity to the message because of his auspiciousness. Whitman’s company also supports Ginsberg’s thesis because it shared many similar opinions. Walt Whitman considered America’s first original poet in the nineteenth century, experimented with meter and rhythm and forgo the structured line and stanza (Holmes 1).
Whitman was an eccentric, controversial for his time, and just like Ginsberg, Whitman was a homosexual (Moore 1). Whitman wrote about nature, and encroachment of industrialized society, sexual expression, and freedom, spirituality, much like Allen Ginsberg’s work (Holmes 1). Like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Whitman’s most famous work “Leaves of Grass” was considered pornographic and obscene. Ginsberg wished to follow Whitman’s legacy with style and reputation. Ginsberg’s famous long line style was inspired by Whitman’s use of differing lengths of line and breath (Holmes 1).
The author sought to continue Whitman’s poetic attack on industrialized society, the consequences of corporate growth and consumerism, and the loss of quality in life with the detachment of man from nature. It seems that Ginsberg chose Whitman not only for his similarities but because he felt that Whitman was the only person who could understand him even though Whitman is long gone from this world. He chose Whitman to be his ghostly companion on this journey is because Ginsberg so desperately sought sustained interaction with people. He mourned the lack of meaningful contact among individuals in modern society.
Whitman, a dead poet, was the only person that Ginsberg could talk to and feel understood. The author also wants to have Whitman present to emphasize to the reader the comparison of Whitman’s optimistic vision of a prosperous America with the stale, less natural, pessimistic version of the one that Ginsberg now observes. Ginsberg is looking at America in the 20th century as Whitman looked at it in the 19th. Ginsberg ironically summons Whitman during a moonlit walk that leads to the Supermarket, it seems he is beginning the poem in nature for a reason.
The Supermarket is a symbol of this severance of people from nature; who no longer grow their food. It is a condemnation of American consumerism; items bought are perfectly packaged and fake looking, without any evidence of where it came from and how it got there (Monteiro 1). The food is a symbol of what nature offers moral, psychic, and spiritual nourishment. Ginsberg mentions the neon lighting and uses the word “penumbra,” which is defined as the region between darkness and full light (Monteiro 1). The author eludes that the lighting of the store was some sort of eerie dawn or dusk.
His descriptions of the light and space give this poem a surrealistic atmosphere. The tight aisles are meant to be a contrast to Whitman’s open spaces, one can almost feel them closing in on you like a bad dream. He is trying to join the subconscious to reality, much like the work of Spanish poet Garcia Lorca (Monteiro 1). In the poem Ginsberg sights Lorca hanging out by the watermelons and beckons to him deliriously. Lorca’s work is characterized by the “interconnectedness of dreams and reality in the character’s lives. (Patanuttaro 1) The comparison seems quite relevant to the dreamy and almost ethereal tone in which Ginsberg is going for in this piece. Lorca has a common connection with Whitman, whom he paid homage to in his own work “Ode to Whitman” (Monteiro 1). Lorca was also a rebel of his time, who defied rules of poetry and used controversial subject matter. “What peaches and what penumbras! ” The exuberance of his dialogue reveals a seemingly frantic mood. “Whole families shopping at night! Aisles are full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! (6-8) Ginsberg is using exclamation marks because he is irrational. Perhaps the modern family structure being displayed all around him frustrates the author; he seems disgusted by their exposition of consumerism and heterosexuality. “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys” (10-12). This line reveals Whitman as Ginsberg’s kindred spirit, it seems as though there is an inside joke between two good friends who are teasing each other playfully.
The author calls Whitman “childless,” he is still referring to the family structure, and how they as gay men don’t get to participate in it. This Part has a sense of Ginsberg’s loneliness, underlining nostalgia, and unsaid bitterness. “Who killed the pork chops?… Are you my angel? ” (13-14) This is when Ginsberg introduces death and the disconnection people have with where their food comes from and who butchers the meat (Moore 1). Again, the author is commenting on a complete disconnection and bastardization of nature.
Ginsberg and Whitman continue to meander through the store, imaginarily trailed by the store detective, feeling suspicious, strange, and exposed in this atmosphere. They continue to stroll euphorically and take a pleasure cruise sightseeing in the product when they are interrupted by an announcement, “The doors close in an hour,” abruptly ending their trancelike state and inspiring a sense of uncertainty as they leave the market. Reality has set in and they walk without a destination, lost in thoughts of the world around them. “The lights will be out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely” (26-27).
The supermarket adventure has come to an end, leaving only questions of the future. In the final stanza, Ginsberg further expresses his feelings of isolation from the mainstream. “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love…. Home to our silent cottage? ” (28-29), back to his solitude in a world lacking his spiritual kinship with another Whitman, Lorca, does anyone else understand him? “This complacent suburban ideal has little to offer a radical and highly individualistic thinker such as Ginsberg. ” (Pagnattaro 1) In the last line of the poem, “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? ” (30-33). Ginsberg speaks to Whitman; in this line, he is referring to Greek mythology’s Charon the boatman, who brings the souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead (Monteiro 1). Allowing Whitman to get off the boat, Ginsberg is leaving him in a state of absolution to drink from the river of forgetfulness in his custom made version of hell (Pagnattaro 1).
Ginsberg insinuates that the present-day reality is the land of the dead, and only in death would he get to live in Whitman’s America and join those that truly know how to be. “A Supermarket in California” is a tribute to Walt Whitman, and a comparison of the America in which they wrote about, one hopeful and the other not. Whitman’s character is an instrument used to examine sustained interactions with the author, emphasizing the lack of meaningful contact in daily life (Moore 1).
This poem is also a celebration of free thought, especially in Ginsberg’s use of two poets famous for breaking free from social and poetic conformity Whitman and Lorca. Ginsberg goes to the supermarket in search of comfort and nourishment but instead reveals how truly depressing modern society can be. He questions where the food is coming from; knowing that for every item in that store there had been a moral price paid. The Supermarket symbolizes the decline of humanity, sending the author into near insanity. Ginsberg makes you feel his sense of social doom, people, completely out of touch with themselves and each other.
Challenging the structure of modern families, social roles in American society, and how slowly they have evolved. Ginsberg’s poem is an expression of a lost America. Whitman’s America is long gone.
- Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl and Other Poems.” San Francisco: City Lights Bookstore, 1956. Print.
- Holmes, James. “Walt Whitman had America right-a century ago. ” Online Athens. onlineathens.com. Web. 3 March 2013.
- Montiero, George. “Peaches and Penumbras: Ginsberg’s ‘Supermarket in California’.” Notes on Contemporary Literature 36. 2 (2006). Literature Resource Center. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.
- Moore, Julie. “Allen Ginsberg’s a Supermarket in California and Condemnation of American Consumerism.” Yahoo Voices (2007). Yahoo. Web. 28 Feb. 2013.
- Pagnattaro, Marisa Anna. “Critical Essay on ‘A Supermarket in California’.” Poetry for Students. Ed. Mary Ruby. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. Literature Resource Center. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
- Unknown. “A Supermarket in California.” Poetry Archive: About the Poet. poetryarchive.org. Web. 21 Feb. 2013.
- Unknown. “Biography of Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997).” Grade Saver. gradesaver.com/Authors. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.
Cite this Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California” Literary Analysis
Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California” Literary Analysis. (2016, Oct 14). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/allen-ginsberg-a-supermarket-in-california-literary-analysis/