19 pages • 38 minutes readAllen Ginsberg
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“A Supermarket in California” is a prose poem by the American poet Allen Ginsberg. Written in 1955, it appears alongside Ginsberg’s most well-known work, “Howl,” in his book Howl and Other Poems. Published November 1, 1956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books as part of their Pocket Poets Series, Howl and Other Poems was subject to an obscenity trial in 1957 due to its use of sexually explicit language. The trial eventually ruled in the book’s favor, determining the text to be not obscene. Howl and Other Poems received much critical acclaim and solidified Ginsberg as a key member of the Beat Movement. One of the great literary movements of the 20th century, the Beat Movement included fellow writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, among others, known more colloquially as the Beats.
In his introduction to Howl, the great Modernist poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “Say what you will, [Ginsberg] proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith- and the art! to persist.” Williams goes on to say, “[Ginsberg] sees through and all around the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem” (Williams, William Carlos. Introduction. Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg, City Lights Books, 1956, pp. 7-8.). True to Williams’s observations, Ginsberg’s poetry is at once intimate and more wide ranging and political in scope. “A Supermarket in California” is both an ode to one of Ginsberg’s key influences, Walt Whitman, and a critique of the postwar American society of the 1950s.
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Aside from Whitman, other key influences of Ginsberg include his peers, specifically Kerouac, Modernism, William Blake, John Keats, the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, jazz, Eastern religion including Buddhism, and psychedelic drug use. Additionally, his Jewish upbringing impacted his work and can be seen in his poem “Kaddish,” written as an elegy for his late mother.
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Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, with his parents and older brother, Eugene. His father, Louis Ginsberg, was an English teacher; his mother, Naomi Levy, was a Russian expatriate and Marxist who struggled throughout her life with mental health issues (at the age of 21, Ginsberg had to sign his mother’s lobotomy papers). Ginsberg began writing poetry from a young age, gravitating toward the works of Walt Whitman, even publishing his own poems in the local Paterson Morning Call.
In the 1940s, Ginsberg attended Columbia University on a scholarship awarded by the Young Men’s Hebrew Association of Paterson. In 1943 while at Columbia, Ginsberg befriended William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac who, along with Ginsberg, would later become some of the most influential figures of the Beat Movement. During his college years, Ginsberg began taking his writing more seriously, contributing to the Columbia Review, as well as experimenting with drugs and exploring relationships with men. After a brief expulsion in 1945, Ginsberg graduated from Columbia University in 1948. However, soon after his college graduation, Ginsberg found himself in hot water when he was caught harboring stolen goods acquired by an acquaintance. In 1949, Ginsberg pleaded insanity to avoid jail time, landing him several months in a mental institution instead. He carried out his eight-month sentence at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute, where he met Carl Solomon, whose interest in Dada, surrealism, and the works of poet Antonin Artaud provided Ginsberg with somewhat of a literary awakening. Solomon eventually became an inspiration for the poem “Howl,” with Ginsberg dedicating the poem to him.
After his release from the psychiatric hospital, Ginsberg lived in New York for several years before moving to San Francisco in 1953. In California, he befriended Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, and Peter Orlovsky (who became Ginsberg’s lifelong partner). In San Francisco, Ginsberg wrote and first performed “Howl.” His performance of “Howl” at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, marked a crucial moment not only in the Beat Movement but in Ginsberg’s career as well. When Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, critics both loved and hated it, and the text eventually was subject to an obscenity trial due to the sexual language of the poem “Howl.” The judge in the case ruled the text not obscene, cementing it forever in the notoriety of the trial and as a canonical text of the Beat Movement.
When Ginsberg left the West Coast in 1957, he spent some years traveling internationally to France, Morocco, and India with Orlovsky. In 1968 he returned to Columbia University where he taught as a visiting professor, and took a teaching position at Brooklyn College, where he taught until his death. In 1974, Ginsberg along with the poet Anne Waldman founded the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.
Already diagnosed with hepatitis and congestive heart failure, Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer in 1997. He died shortly after his diagnosis on April 5, 1997 at the age of 70. Throughout his lifetime, Ginsberg made a significant impact on American letters—he received a National Book Award (1974), a National Arts Club gold medal (1979), induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1979), and he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist (1995). He made significant other contributions through his teaching and mentorship of his peers and young poets alike. Ginsberg’s work is still widely read and taught, having become cemented as part of the American literary canon.
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets 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 absurd.)
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?
Ginsberg, Allen. “A Supermarket in California.” 1955. Poetry Foundation.
The opening line of the poem finds the speaker thinking of Walt Whitman while on a nighttime walk. The speaker then stumbles into a supermarket “shopping for images” (Line 2). Lines 3-6 reveal various such images from within the market, including one of the famous Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca “down by the watermelons.”
A direct mention of Whitman in Line 4 provides the reader with more information about the poet, including a reference to his attraction to men, as he is “eyeing the grocery boys.” The speaker then proceeds to list several questions he imagines Whitman to be asking the grocery boys: “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” (Line 5). Lines 6-7 discuss specific movements throughout the supermarket and within the imagination of the speaker. Line 8 asks “Where are we going, Walt Whitman?” and marks a change of tense in the poem, shifting into present. The following lines provide a sense of time and signal to readers that the speaker is looking to Whitman for guidance stating, “Which way does your beard point tonight?” (Line 8). The only use of parentheses appears in Line 9: “(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)” which comes off as an almost diaristic note held within the otherwise dreamy nature of the poem.
Line 10 asks a pointed question: “Will we walk all night through solitary streets?” It then follows this question with this image: “The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely” (Line 10). Similarly, the question in Line 11 includes an image, which works to restate the sentiment presented in the previous lines while suggesting more of a cultural critique: “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?”
Line 12, which ends the poem, contains references to Greek mythology with the mention of “Charon” and “Lethe,” and poses one final question to Whitman, “[W]hat 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?” This final image produced in the form of a question is significant due to the weight of the literary references and the larger political implications of asking Whitman about his version of America.
By Allen Ginsberg