A Supermarket in California

Author Allen Ginsberg (1926– )
First Published 1956, in Howl and Other Poems
Type of Poem Narrative

The Poem

"A Supermarket in California" is a short poem in free verse, its twelve lines divided into three stanzas. The title suggests a bland setting—not the expected source of a poem. The title and setting prove ironic, however, as Allen Ginsberg demonstrates that for most people in America, exploration goes no further than the local grocery store.

The poem is written in the first person, which is typical of Ginsberg’s work; he writes very personally of his visions and experiences in America. Ginsberg is speaking in the first person not only to share his immediate sensuous experiences but also to invoke, by using this perspective, the American poet in whose footsteps he is attempting to walk: Walt Whitman.

In fact, Ginsberg speaks directly to Whitman in the poem’s first line as he wearily trudges down the streets of suburban California, "self-conscious looking at the full moon … shopping for images." He enters a bright "neon fruit supermarket" (line 2) as if here he might find the same image of America—the diversity and freedom, the limitless, democratic possibilities—that Whitman saw. What he sees in the market, however, is only the multitude of fruit and the families shopping together as if this were the richest experience they could share.

At the end of stanza 1, Ginsberg also spies the twentieth century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca standing by the watermelons. The sighting of García Lorca—a homosexual like Ginsberg and, many suspect, Whitman—creates a smooth transition to stanza 2, where Ginsberg chides Whitman for "eyeing the grocery boys" (line 4). In his mind he hears Whitman asking mundane questions about food prices, about "who killed the pork chops," and if anyone will be his "Angel"—that is, will follow him (line 5). There is no response, but Ginsberg continues following the elder poet past aisles of canned goods, perhaps trailed by the store detective, who has noted Ginsberg’s suspicious appearance.

Stanza 2 ends with the poets tasting delicacies along the way but buying nothing. At the beginning of the final stanza, they find themselves with no place to go, since in an hour, when the store closes, they will be given their freedom again. Ginsberg looks to Whitman for advice and direction, and even "touches" Whitman’s book (presumably Leaves of Grass, 1855) for inspiration.

He gets no response and thus finds himself out on the "solitary streets," with the "lights out in the houses," where he and Whitman will "both be lonely" (line 10). He asks if it is possible that their walk will be a pleasant memory of "the lost America of love" (line 11), meaning the freer, untamed America of Whitman’s day, since, as he notes, they will also have to walk past the same blue cars in the same driveways, house after house. The poem ends on a note of despair as Ginsberg asserts that when Whitman’s journey ended, he found himself by the mythical waters of Lethe, one of the rivers in Hades. "What America did you have then," he asks Whitman, and since the poem began in the first-person singular and shifted to the plural in stanzas 2 and 3, as if the two are journeying together, he seems to be including himself in this haunting question.

Forms and Devices

What is most noticeable about the form of "A Supermarket in California" is its free verse, which again alludes to Whitman, the founder of the free verse style. Ginsberg even more closely associates himself with Whitman by exploiting the complexity of the structure and rhythm of this form. Whitman’s famous self-referential poem "Song of Myself" (1855) is the particular model for Ginsberg, as both poems employ convoluted sentence structures and lines that cannot be contained within the typeset of one line on the typical printed page.

Each line of "A Supermarket in California" "contains multitudes," as Whitman said of himself in "Song of Myself" (line 1326). For example, the first line invokes Whitman himself, sets the poem down on a suburban street in America, describes the speaker as having a "headache," being "self-conscious," and looking at "the full moon," which, though traditionally a sign of lunacy, functions even better here to contrast with the artificial "neon" light of the supermarket in the next line. Outdoor America is easily traversed, an opposite notion to Whitman’s idea and to the reality of America in the nineteenth century.

The third line also supports this premise as it speaks of various fruits, families spending time shopping, and finally the homosexual poet García Lorca. By using García Lorca, Ginsberg points to two clear distinctions between the average American and the poets mentioned: the poets’ confusion and despair over the loss of the art and beauty of unspoiled America and their sense of alienation at deviating from the sexual norm of America.

Rhythmically, "A Supermarket in California" also matches "Song of Myself" through the use of opening repetition. Each of the first three lines of stanza 2 begins with the first-person-singular pronoun followed by an active verb: "I saw you, Walt Whitman …;/ I heard you asking questions …;/ I wandered in and out." The last line of that stanza, while switching to first-person plural, only varies the same pattern: "we strode down the open corridors." This rhythmic pattern works as well in the last stanza through Ginsberg’s questioning of Whitman, similar to Whitman’s questioning of his readers in "Song of Myself": "Where are we going …;/ Will we walk all night …;/ Will we stroll dreaming." The repetition of certain patterns serves as an incantation in which Ginsberg tries to break the spell that suburban, homogeneous America has on its citizenry.

Finally, the supermarket is an obvious metaphor for Ginsberg’s view of the final product of what Whitman had seen as the great promise of America’s vast, unexplored frontier. The age of exploration in nineteenth century America pushed the frontier to the Pacific Ocean. Whitman advocated following America’s paths and thereby exploring and finding oneself—one’s imaginative and spiritual potential. All Ginsberg has found at the end of the frontier is a neon-lit supermarket full of people who seem to have nowhere else to go or who have lost the drive to explore. Thus, the potential of America has been transformed, or has "progressed" to that of easy shopping.

Themes and Meanings

Ginsberg uses Whitman and his "Song of Myself" as an ironic counterpoint to "A Supermarket in California," though the irony is shaded by Ginsberg’s remorse for himself, Whitman, and America. For Ginsberg, America in the twentieth century has reneged on its promise of opportunity, freedom, and liberty. Where Whitman in the nineteenth century found and celebrated diversity in the American people, as he sings in "Song of Myself," Ginsberg finds only homogeneity. Where Whitman saw an endless horizon of land to explore—the pageant of the American landscape—Ginsberg sees only "solitary streets," houses with their lights out, "blue automobiles in driveways," and "the neon fruit supermarket."

Thus the images of America that Ginsberg sees are not the ones he is "shopping for." This town and supermarket exist everywhere in the United States, each market and each town, in their design and emphasis on materialism, trying to keep up with all the others. America’s melting pot has become an all too grim reality.

Try as America might to obscure its differences—its variety of people and their desires, ambitions—it cannot hide all of its parts. The very fact that poets such as Whitman, García Lorca, and Ginsberg, who have deviated from the norm sexually as well as artistically, exist testifies to this truth. That Ginsberg still wants to write about America, even in lamentation, indicates the emotional attachment and investment he has made in the country, as well as the force with which he has believed in Whitman’s dream. No matter how hard the mainstream tries to homogenize and tame the wild, "barbaric yawp" (as Whitman put it) within us, Ginsberg and others continue to sound it out loud and strong.

In the final stanza, though, he is faced with the troubling question of where to go to find his joy and inspire his innermost being. His remorse for himself, Whitman, and America surfaces in the parenthesis of this stanza when he "touches" Whitman’s "book" (Leaves of Grass). Instead of being comforted and inspired, as Whitman intends in "Song of Myself" when he tells his readers not to fear taking the journey through America, for he (Whitman) will go with them, Ginsberg can only think of his "absurd" walk through the supermarket, perhaps followed by the store detective who is a symbol of the watchful eye of the nation’s conformity. As he leaves Whitman in Hades at the poem’s end, asking the "lonely old courage-teacher, what America/ did you have" then, one suspects that ultimately Ginsberg believes that he is the one who is left alone on the shore of "the black waters of Lethe."