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A Visit to the Supermarket with Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg

A Visit to the Supermarket with Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg


In one of his most powerful poems, Ginsberg mixed consumer criticism with a Whitmanesque and aerial vision of the United States in the 1950s.

Allen Ginsberg was one of the most controversial American poets in the 1950s. His poetry collection, Howl and Other Poems caused a true commotion, in part because of the allegations leveled against the poet, and his publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for the homoerotic content and the radical imagery. Critics went so far as to bring criminal charges to prevent the book’s distribution.

But one of the poems in the book is titled “A Supermarket in California.” A visit to a local supermarket becomes a nocturnal odyssey as much as a critique of American consumer society when, here, the poet meets his revered Walt Whitman. The author of Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s newspaper columns about personal improvement were only recently re-discovered.

The Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote his own poem to Whitman, appears here “under the watermelons” and the night ends with an evocation of the Lethe River, where souls went on their journey to the underworld of Hades, led by the boatman, Charon.

“A Supermarket in California” can also be read as ironic literary praise for the tradition, as Whitman had done in his own turn for Edgar Allan Poe. It’s also a question of what had changed in American society since the dawn of the first industrial revolution, in the time of Whitman, and the post-Civil War world.

Illustrator Nathan Gelgud converted the text into a short cartoon, a media quite appropriate to the speed of Ginsberg’s text. It was also translated into a cinematic format for the film Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010), starring James Franco in the role of Allen Ginsberg.

Supermarket in California comic strip

A Supermarket in California

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, García 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 a 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?

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