A Supermarket in California

     What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whit- 
man, 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 fam- 
ilies shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives 
in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, 
García Lorca, what were you doing down by the 

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

                                   Berkeley 1955

-- Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

    "Why do people keep on complimenting 'Supermarket in California?' I HATE THAT POEM! It's probably only anthologized a lot because it's short."

    Allen Ginsberg

Can't you just hear that Jersey accent? Born in Paterson in 1926 to a school teacher father and a mother who had immigrated from Russia, Allen Ginsberg was the spokesman for the Beat Generation of the 1950's.

At one web site a person wonders:

    I understood this man, Allen Ginsberg is a homosexual. I read in the footnotes that it said Walt Whitman is someone Allen Ginsberg measures himself against, so I could understand why he refers to him or writes as if he's speaking to Whitman. I don't understand why a "supermarket in California"? Or what he is referring to when he mentions "Aisles full of husbands, wives in the avocados, and babies in the tomatoes? What is he saying or what does he mean? Is this a way to keep his ways a secret in the dark?
    To wit the reply was,
    It's a Ginsberg poem. get over it.

Another misunderstanding souls relates:

    .....this came from a very sick mind.
I couldn't disagree more, it's telling and quite sophisticated. A Supermarket in California captures the rhythms of action and speech in a spreading use of complex forms, boldly decorated with acres of words and visions of Whitman, "poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.." The imagery juxtaposes the past with present.

Written in the American poetic tradition, with Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams as major influences. His poetry possess an improvised quality in its informality, discursive and repetitiveness. It conveys immediacy and honesty.

Ginsberg had written "Supermarket in California" in a grocery store on College Avenue in Berkeley, after reading Garcia Lorca's Ode to Walt Whitman. 'Supermarket in California' is a crafted criticism of literary figures as ode; addressed by poet, to those who cannot, or will not, answer. The narrator begins by creating a postmodern holy soul in a Blakean-like Preface to Milton ' from mental fight,' longing for the return of Whitman. Carl Sandburg's canonical Hog Butcher for the World echoes in Whitman's empty questions:Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel? And the question posed in the last refrain,

    Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
easily calls to mind Whitman's:
    O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
    The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won;
Charon is to Ginsberg, as Whitman is to Erebus who ferries the mythological Greek souls of the dead over a river. However, the river is not the Styx but in its place, is Hades whose waters cause drinkers to forget their past. One scholar explains what motivated Ginsberg:
    Starting from William Carlos Williams' idea of a new American idiom and measure, then reaching back to Whitman, Ginsberg arrived at what he calls his 'romantic inspiration -- Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath'. What this means ... is the freedom to be exuberant and incantatory, to catalogue at will, and to employ free association of ideas in the context of sweeping religious utterance. Ultimately, Ginsberg is the natural heir to Whitman, in his further exploration of Whitman's long line, and in his preoccupation with transcending the ego by containing, or partaking of, all experience, in a kind of osmosis of the imagination.

    (Ginsberg) wanted to create a poetry that would not be literary, but would make full use of everything in our daily lives. "When you approach the Muse, talk as frankly as you would with yourself or your friends".

    -- 20th Century Poetry and Poetics, ed. Gary Geddes

Simply Berkeley, 1955 is the only date of origin I can discover. It may be the composition date since there is copyright date of 1956 in City Lights Books. Here is a an excerpt from a letter he wrote to William Carlos Williams, in Rutherford, New Jersey that seems to verify the approximate date :
    December 9, 1955

    Dear Dr. Williams:

    I enclose finally some of my recent work.

    Am reading Whitman through, note enclosed poem on same, saw your essay a few days ago, you do not go far enough, look what I have done with the long line. In some of these poems it seems to answer your demand for a relatively absolute line with a fixed base, whatever it is (I am writing this in a hurry finally to get it off, have delayed for too long) -- all held within the elastic of the breath, though of varying lengths. The key is in Jazz choruses to some extent; also to reliance on spontaneity & expressiveness which long line encourages; also to attention to interior unchecked logical mental stream. With a long line comes a return (to) expressive human feeling, it's generally lacking in poetry now, which is inhuman. The release of emotion is one with rhythmical buildup of long line. The most interesting experiment here is perhaps the sort of bachlike fuge built up in part III of the poem called Howl.

    This is not all I have done recently, there is one other piece which is nakeder than the rest and passed into prose. I'll send that on if you're interested -- also I have a whole book building up since 1951 when you last saw my work. I wish you would look at it but have not sent it on with these, is there enough time?

    Enclosed poems are all from the last few months.

    I hope these answer somewhat what you were looking for.

    As ever,


    No time to write a weirder letter.

The "note enclosed" he refers to is of course, 'Supermarket in California.' The additional poems sent to Williams were In the Baggage Room at Greyhound, and probably Sunflower Sutra. The one described as "one other piece which is nakeder than the rest and passed into prose" is most likely Transcription of Organ Music.

There's a supermarket just like it down the street, only instead of a Californian supermarket shelf and Ginsberg, Whitman, and Lorca walking by neon fruit where they talked; all three are dead forty years and now cool themselves by Lethe's breeze.

There is a woman in the cold yellow glare of the deli case rehearsing words; it's in different languages, different locations and with different moods, adding different layers of dynamics between the produce landscapes. How can people live with these artificial products? Dreaming of the lost America of love past, in the seamy underbelly of consumption, a vain attempt to interpret the numbing fount of consumerism.

Shopping is not usually likened to that of a nice verse of poetry. Uninspiring and charmless clusters, supermarkets tend to offer the same; shopping as sport. Fueling the deterioration of meaningful contact between people. The days of casual, yet personal relationships between the shopper and their local storekeepers have come and gone. One has to face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone, and that our relation is to the world of reality of walking home, past blue automobiles in driveways to a silent cul de sac.


The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s:
Accessed February 27, 2007.

Accessed April 7, 2002.

The Wondering Minstrels:
Accessed February 27, 2007.

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