Allen Ginsberg wrote “A Supermarket in California” while living in Berkeley, California in 1955. It was originally included as one of the “other poems” in Ginsberg’s 1956 publication of “Howl and Other Poems” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books. Ginsberg also wrote one of his other famous poem, “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley” on the same day that he wrote “A Supermarket.” Both were some of his first experiments with the long line form that would be epitomized by his poem, “Howl,” and which would be Ginsberg’s trademark style.
“A Supermarket in California” is both an ode to Ginsberg’s poetic hero and major influence, Walt Whitman, as well as an early experimentation with many of the themes that would dominate his work throughout his career. Whitman, who is considered to be America’s first original poet, was an early influence on Ginsberg’s writing. Whitman, a nineteenth century poet, experimented with meter and rhythm and eschewed the structured line and stanza which was the standard form for poetry of his time.
Whitman became known as an eccentric, both for his style of writing as well as his lifestyle. Whitman himself was greatly influenced by the Romantic poets and much of his poetry deals with nature and the encroachment of industrialized society on all that is natural and, in Whitman’s thought, good about America. Additionally, Whitman’s poems often glorified a sexually expressive mode of being, using veiled references to promote both a spiritual and sexual freedom. Like “Howl,” Whitman’s early poetry, including his most famous work, Leaves of Grass was considered pornographic and obscene by nineteenth century standards. Whitman himself is believed to have been homosexual or bisexual, though those assertions are sometimes challenged by modern Whitman scholarship.
Ginsberg sought to continue Whitman’s legacy stylistically and thematically. Ginsberg’s long line was inspired by Whitman’s use of varying lengths of line and breath. Thematically, Ginsberg sought to continue Whitman’s poetic assault upon industrialized society by writing about the consequences of corporate and industrial growth that Whitman could only foresee in his own work. “A Supermarket in California,” with its depictions of domesticated life symbolized by food placed out of its natural context, deals with such themes. Additionally, “A Supermarket” also alludes to a hidden sexualized world, veiled in the language of commonplace things.
Ginsberg also pays homage to another influence in “A Supermarket,” Garcia Lorca. Lorca was an influential Spanish poet in the early 20th century. Lorca was killed at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War by the right wing Spanish Nationalists for his own leftist political views. Ginsberg, who remained sympathetic to leftist politics for his entire life, wrote a line about the Spanish Loyalists in his poem, “America.” Lorca was an influence on Ginsberg mainly for his own homage to Whitman in his own poetry. Like Ginsberg, Lorca saw as an influence Whitman’s disregard for poetic rules and structure and for his controversial subject matter that prized free thought and expression over cultural conformity.
“A Supermarket in California” begins with Ginsberg recounting a particular vision he had one night while living in Berkeley, California. He opens by setting the scene: he is walking down a street, under trees and a full moon, having “thoughts” of Walt Whitman. For Ginsberg, the setting is important here. He feels pulled by two sides of life, one represented by the urban landscape of Berkeley and the Bay Area, the second is the natural world symbolized by the trees and the moon. These symbols remind him of Whitman, who sought to find a truer world and identity in nature.
Ginsberg, with a “headache” (2) and in a “hungry fatigue” that is part physical and part spiritual, who is looking for solace from the existential crisis he is facing, wanders into what he terms as a “neon / fruit supermarket” (4-5). He is “dreaming” of Whitman’s “enumerations,” meaning that he hopes the supermarket will hold a glimpse of the world Whitman spoke of in his poetry. Ginsberg is looking to history to help him answer the economic and social questions that his modern world has posed. The term “neon,” a harsh false light, foreshadows the inevitable disappointment that the reader knows Ginsberg will find.
Ginsberg enters the supermarket hoping to find beauty in the natural products of the supermarket. His hope is that he can look beyond the commodification of modern society. Line six illustrates Ginsberg’s surprise and cynicism for what he finds there. “What peaches and what penumbras!” he exclaims. The penumbras, a word meaning “shroud” or “partial illumination,” are meant to designate the secrets that such displays of nature and domesticity hide. These secrets are hidden the “Whole families shopping at / night!,” night being another allusion to the darkness of industrialized society that demanded the illusion of the perfect nuclear family. Line eight ends the poem first stanza and is a brief homage to another Whitman admirer, Garcia Lorca (see the Summary).
The second stanza begins Ginsberg’s imaginative encounter with Walt Whitman. Ginsberg claims that “I saw you, Walt Whitman...poking / among the meats...and eyeing the grocery boys” (9-10). Ginsberg means these lines to be a double entendre, “poking among the meats” being a crude term for male intercourse and “eyeing the grocery boys” an acknowledgement for Whitman’s alleged sexual fondness for young boys. Ginsberg continues the sexual imagery in lines eleven and twelve when he claims that Whitman asked “Who killed the pork chops? / What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” These lines use supermarket imagery to denote a primal kind of sexuality, rooted in nature but bastardized by the profit motive of industrialized society. But they also pose questions of economics. In Whitman’s day it would have been natural for the consumer of food to know where the food came from, who killed it, and how it got to their table. What is unsaid, yet implied, is that Whitman’s question would not be able to be answered by the store’s owners or employees. When Ginsberg then asks if Whitman might be his “Angel,” he is possibly alluding to Walter Benjamin’s work, The Angel of History, a Marxist philosophical text that predicted that the final result of modernity would be nothing short of the end of civilization. Whitman had a similar vision - a society detached from nature and a humanity that lost its individuality.
But Ginsberg does not just write of the social doom he finds in the supermarket. Whitman gives him a vision of another kind of life because Whitman is able to find the beauty in the mass of commodities that confronts him. Ginsberg follows Whitman “in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans” (13) and watches him “tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the / cashier” (16-17). Whitman is the one figure in the poem able to bypass the demands of profit and payment that the supermarket demands. Instead, he is able to taste the food, the symbol of the natural, without having to pay for its pleasures.
The final stanza of the poem finds Ginsberg less optimistic of the world that he now inhabits. He questions Whitman: “Where are we going...The doors close in an hour” (18). This is a tacit acknowledgment that the vision he is having cannot last. Whitman’s glorification of the natural world cannot stand in the face of economic modernity where everything is for sale and everything has a price. Ginsberg admits that he feels “absurd” for having such an optimistic vision of seeing the esthetic beauty in a supermarket’s commodities (20-21). Ginsberg knows that there is no place that he and Whitman can go to find Whitman’s pure vision of the natural society and the natural man. Their quest through the “solitary streets,” past symbols of a “lost America” such as cars and dark houses will lead them only to loneliness (22-25).
Ginsberg ends the poem comparing America to the mythological Hades. He asks Whitman what kind of America he saw “when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out... / and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of / Lethe?” (27-29). Charon was the guardian of Hades who would ferry souls across the River Styx to their eternity. But Ginsberg notes that Whitman never quite made it directly into Hades. Instead, he was stranded on a bank of the River Lethe, another river that ran through Hades. The river Lethe, in Greek mythology, would cause complete forgetfulness for those that drank from its waters. This, says Ginsberg, is the meaning of modern society: it forgets its past and what is natural. The peach in the supermarket has no relation for those that buy it to the natural world from which it came. Its past has been forgotten. This is the state of the world that capitalism and modernity has brought. And Whitman, who once railed against such advancement, is left stranded on the side of an unending river of forgetfulness. He is now a forgotten hero.