Here is an analysis of the poem A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg, one of the leaders of the Beat Generation. He is most known for his poem “Howl,” which got him in a bit of hot water for its subversive themes. Ginsberg and his poem actually went on trial in California since the poem was considered indecent, and a judge later ruled that because of Ginsberg’s first amendment rights, the poem was perfectly legal. A Supermarket in California, another favorite among Ginsberg fans, was published in his book Howl and Other Poems in 1956. By that point, Ginsberg had moved from New York to San Francisco, where he met and fell in love with his partner until his death, Peter Orlovsky. It was also in San Francisco where Ginsberg met other key players in the Beat Generation.
A Supermarket in California Summary
In this poem, the speaker, possibly Ginsberg, is speaking directly to American poet Walt Whitman, who died in 1892, but who inspired many poets generations after his death. Ginsberg, a Whitman devotee, is no exception. The speaker tells Whitman that he thought of him while walking under the full moon, and the speaker wanders into a supermarket, hungry and tired. The speaker then describes the people he encounters there, claiming to have seen Whitman in the aisles, poking at the different assortments of food. The speaker ends the poem, wondering if he and Whitman will walk around and dream of the past and of “the lost America.”Ginsberg’s poem, A Supermarket in California, can be read in full here.
A Supermarket in California Analysis
There is an air of superiority to A Supermarket in California, and with its many allusions, Ginsberg assumes his readers will have a certain prior knowledge of subjects such as poetry, world history, and mythology. Ginsberg separates his poem into three stanzas, and his lines are unrhymed and written in free verse, and structure does not seem of great importance to Ginsberg; his stanzas and lines are of varying lengths.
As stated earlier, Ginsberg utilizes apostrophe, which is the device used when a poet speaks directly to a person who is not actually there. In this case, Ginsberg is speaking to Walt Whitman, who by the time Ginsberg wrote A Supermarket in California, had been dead for many years. Many consider Whitman to be one of Ginsberg’s inspirations and muses, so it is no surprise that the poet conjures up one of his idols. He writes, “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 the next line, the speaker continues to talk to Whitman, telling him that in his “hungry fatigue,” he entered a supermarket to shop not for food, but for images. In the next lines, it does seem that the speaker is, in fact, shopping for the sights that he sees, not for food. He calls the supermarket a “neon fruit supermarket,” which inspires images of bright lights and catchy products in his reader. He says he entered the store “dreaming of your enumerations!” An enumeration is a list of sorts, and Whitman is known for utilizing lists in his poetry. Ginsberg probably also intended to use the word since most people create shopping lists before going grocery shopping. Instead of consulting a food list, he is instead checking the works of his favorite poet. The second half of the first stanza details images of the objects and people that surround the speaker in the supermarket. There is a flurry of activity occurring here, which is a sharp contrast to the beginning of the poem when the speaker seems almost lonely as he walks outside thinking of Whitman and looking up at the full moon. Here, there are peaches and penumbras, which are dark spots in astronomy, but could be the dark spots the speaker sees on the fruit. There are also families shopping together—the husbands are in the aisles while the wives are in the avocados and the babies are in the tomatoes. The speaker also speaks to another dead poet, Garcia Lorca, who is a Spanish poet who was executed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. It is curious that Ginsberg uses so many exclamation points here, an uncommon punctuation mark in poetry. Perhaps he utilizes it in order to convey the hustle and bustle that is occurring inside the grocery store.
In the second stanza, the speaker claims to have seen Whitman, himself, “poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” It is no secret that Whitman was homosexual, and Ginsberg makes a note of this in the line. On a side note, both Ginsberg and Garcia Lorca were also gay, which is perhaps why Ginsberg makes mention of the other poets in this work. In the second half of the second stanza, the speaker admits to following Whitman around the store. The dead poet can be heard asking all sorts of questions, the last being “Are you my Angel?” It is almost as though Whitman is looking for salvation of sorts, someone to save him from this particular miserable existence. The speaker and his muse continue around the store, tasting and handling all sorts of food, yet never coming across a single cashier. The speaker also admits to being “followed in my imagination by the store detective.”
The third and final stanza has an almost forlorn feeling to it: the speaker knows it is getting late and the store will be closing soon. He implores Whitman to tell him where they will be going next. He admits that he feels “absurd” that he’s been touching the poet’s book and dreaming of their odyssey in the grocery store. Even though he feels this way, he does not want the journey to end. He asks if they will be walking the streets together, alone and lonely as the rest of the city closes up and goes to sleep. It is here that the speaker is setting up a division between himself and other Americans. He writes, “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?” It seems as though the speaker is dreaming of when America was different from what it currently is: it was simpler and less obsessed with possessions. The speaker and Whitman are of that other America, not the current one, and their isolation and differentness is palpable in this final stanza. He then asks Whitman, to whom he refers as a “lonely old courage-teacher” what America was like 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?” Ginsberg references two different myths in these lines. Charon is the ferryman who leads the dead across the river Styx and into Hades, the underworld. The Lethe, however, is a different, more sinister river. Those who drink the water from this river will forget everything.
As stated previously, Ginsberg was a homosexual and spent the majority of his life with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. Ginsberg conjures up two dead homosexual poets in his work; perhaps he does this because he feels the three are kindred spirits, and in this poem, Ginsberg seems to be feeling particularly lonely and isolated from the rest of society. A Supermarket in California can be seen as part of the counter-culture of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg clearly draws a line between him and the people living in suburban America with their “blue automobiles.”