Allen Ginsberg: “A Supermarket in California”

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In so many ways – both in his poetry and in his interviews – Allen Ginsberg made clear that he owed a great debt to Walt Whitman. Indeed, Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl,” stands as a nearly direct response to Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” published in 1855, a century before “Howl.”

But perhaps nowhere does Ginsberg make their kinship clearer than in his 1955 poem “A Supermarket in California.” In what seems at first a light-hearted, whimsical poem, Ginsberg imagines walking the aisles of a grocery store with the famed bearded poet, the American bard.

Ginsberg addresses Whitman directly in the poem’s opening line: “What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman.” The reader doesn’t need to guess or infer that Ginsberg has Whitman in mind.

Of course, Ginsberg often acknowledged his poetic debt to Whitman. Both here and in “Howl” (and in many other poems), Ginsberg builds on Whitman’s explosion of the poetic line. Where Whitman sounded his “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” Ginsberg howled, nearly rending his garments in despair and anguish over witnessing “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”

Good enough. Ginsberg was influenced, strongly, by Whitman’s poetry.

But there’s so much more to “A Supermarket in California,” so many ways Whitman is a “dear father,” a mentor to Ginsberg. For Ginsberg was a gay man in 1950s America, a dangerous time and place to embrace one’s homosexuality. In this poem, Ginsberg recognizes that Whitman can teach him more than how to open up a poetic line, how to catalog what he sees as he steps inside “the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!”

No, Whitman – whom Ginsberg calls at the poem’s end the “lonely old courage-teacher” – sets an example for how to embrace one’s sexuality in a culture that is buttoned up, that does not talk about sex much less delight and revel in it openly.

Just as in “A Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg made clear in numerous interviews that Whitman showed him the way to be a truly American poet and how to be a gay man in America. Particularly moving is the Voices and Visions episode on Walt Whitman, which features Allen Ginsberg discussing his poetic and personal debt to Whitman. If you don’t want to watch the video, you can read a transcript of Ginsberg’s comments at the Allen Ginsberg Project website.

As you listen to Ginsberg read “A Supermarket in California,” be sure to appreciate the whimsy of imagining a stroll through the produce department with the “graybeard” poet. Join Ginsberg as he notices the fruits and vegetables and the people who crowd the grocery store’s aisles even at night:

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!

But be sure to appreciate also how Ginsberg pays homage to Walt Whitman as a personal role model. Surely, we want to read beyond the ending, when Ginsberg asks:

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?

Oh, how I long to join Walt Whitman – and Allen Ginsberg – as they walk the streets of America!

See The Paris Review for a great illustration of Ginsberg and Whitman in the California supermarket! You can read “A Supermarket in California” online – or buy a copy of Howl and Other Poems, which includes the Walt Whitman grocery store fantasy.

Watch:Watch Allen Ginsberg introduce and read “A Supermarket in California.” If you have Amazon Prime, you can stream an album titled The Beat Generation – Music & Poetry. Track 50 is “A Supermarket in California.”

Image Credit: Allen Ginsberg in 1979, used with permission,