Allen Ginsberg

A Supermarket in California

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A Supermarket in California Summary

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“A Supermarket in California” is a long-line poem by polemical Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Beat poets, also known as The Beat Generation, were a group of writers who lived outside of what they considered mainstream America. They sought a genuine American experience, one not deluded by capitalism, modernization, or conforming to society. The group became synonymous with rebellion and counter-culture in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and were also labeled as hippies or beatniks, though sometimes inaccurately.

One of Ginsberg’s most well-known poems, “A Supermarket in California” was written in 1955, while Ginsberg lived in Berkeley, California. The poem was published the following year in his infamous collection of poems, “Howl and Other Poems.” Published by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti of the renowned City Lights Books in San Francisco, the collection was considered obscene and pornographic upon its release. Ferlinghetti was arrested by the San Francisco Police Department; however, after the ensuing trial, the book was deemed not obscene. Among other topics, Ginsberg was outspoken about his homosexuality, celebrating this freedom in many of his poems (his stark sexual language in “Howl” is what led to the obscenity trial).

Like other poems, “A Supermarket in California” pays homage to Romantic ideals while simultaneously showing how these ideals cannot be sustained in modern America. The poem pays tribute to Walt Whitman, a kindred spirit, and influence on Ginsberg’s poetry. Whitman, a nineteenth-century poet, is considered by many to be America’s first authentic poet; with his concern about encroaching modernization and support of sexual liberation (he’s considered to be homosexual or bisexual), he foreshadows Ginsberg’s concerns in “A Supermarket in California.” Like Ginsberg, Whitman was also attacked for his nonconformity, and some of his poetry was labeled as pornographic and obscene as well. “A Supermarket in California” addresses both sexuality and the death of an authentic America. Additionally, Ginsberg pays tribute to another influence of his, twentieth-century Spanish poet Garcia Lorca. In addition to being homosexual, Lorca was a Leftist. He was killed during the Spanish Civil War by Nationalists.

The poem begins with Ginsberg recounting a vision he had one night while walking. He observes trees and a full moon while he thinks about Walt Whitman. This sets up the main issue in the poem: the urbanization represented by Berkeley versus the natural world of Whitman’s, a world represented by trees and the moon. Ginsberg finds himself in an existential crisis, symbolized by the use of words such as “headache” and “fatigue.”  In an attempt to alleviate his discomfort, he goes into a neon fruit supermarket. “Neon” foreshadows that the supermarket will be more modern than natural (Ginsberg’s hope is that the fruit will connect him to the natural world), but Ginsberg enters anyway. The first stanza contains the line, “Whole families shopping at night!” alluding to the darkness of modernization and industrialization.

The second stanza contains much of the sexual imagery that gives some critics pause, though the imagery is veiled. Ginsberg speaks with Whitman, who he imagines is also in the store with him, noting that Whitman is “poking among the meats” and “eyeing the grocery boys.” These are both allusions to Whitman’s sexual orientation and attraction to young boys, though the reference to his sexual proclivities is coded in grocery store terminology, which is underscored by later questions such as, “What price bananas?” This doublespeak is tied to the larger issue of economics, suggesting that no matter how much Ginsberg searches, he won’t find what he’s looking for in the economics of the supermarket, a market that works as a stand-in for modern society in general. Interestingly, though Whitman represents nature and authenticity, Whitman finds a sort of peace in the stanza. He is able to move freely in the poem, even though Ginsberg feels that he himself cannot.

In the final stanza, Ginsberg acknowledges the futility of his search. When he questions Whitman in line 18, he is in fact questioning the Romantic ideal of an America that validates individualism and nonconformity. The store will “close in an hour” underscores the fact that he and Whitman are at the whims of economics and the modernization that it represents. Ginsberg now feels foolish for thinking of Whitman in the supermarket; he knows he will feel just as rootless and lonely when he goes back out into the nighttime streets.

The last few lines reference underworld mythology, which supports the dark vision Ginsberg sees: “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?” Whitman is transported across Lethe by Charon, the ferryman who transports souls across Lethe, the river of forgetfulness. This imagery implies both the loss of a dream and forgetfulness. It suggests that Whitman never found the America of his dreams. Moreover, it suggests that he was forgotten, or that he himself forgot his purpose. Ginsberg mourns this death of a dream (the dream of an authentic America and the dream of his mentor), a dream that symbolizes the greater movement of modern America towards the darkness of industrialization and conformity, darkness brought about by forgetfulness and modernization.