Allen Ginsberg considers Whitman a kindred spirit in his poem “A Supermarket in California”. Throughout the poem, Ginsberg searches for images in modern day America that could serve as some sort of, any sort of, inspiration. Ginsberg is thinking of Whitman as he enters the “neon fruit supermarket”. Here, Ginsberg enters an arena of mass production and conformity. Ginsberg has the Whitman in the poem ask, “Who killed my pork chops? What price bananas?” and then “Are you my angel?”. Whitman, coming from an entirely different America than Ginsberg, will not know who killed his pork chops and where his bananas come from in the modern-day supermarket that is the setting of the poem. Ginsberg presents us with imagery of “brilliant stacks of cans” and “frozen delicacy’s”, emphasizing the mass production and commercialization of something ironically so natural- food. Whitman and Ginsberg stick out among “aisles of husbands”, “wives in the avocados”, and “babies in the tomatoes”, as if 1950s American society has no place for the Whitman’s and Ginsberg’s of the world.
As Ginsberg wanders through the supermarket that is America, poets like Whitman and Garcia Lorca serve as a comfort to him. At the end of the poem, Ginsberg asks Whitman, “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?” Here, Ginsberg seems to want to return to the America that Whitman wrote poetry in, the America that had disappeared down black waters into unconsciousness. It is interesting to note that although Lethe is the name of one of the five rivers of Hades, the Oxford English Dictionary defines Lethe as meaning “forgetfulness”, or “oblivion”. Whitman’s America is lost in oblivion, causing Ginsberg anxiety. The tone of the poem is that of no return. Whitman’s poems are littered with praise for the natural beauty of America and Ginsberg seems to be looking to Whitman for guidance. Through the absence of nature, Ginsberg does what he can with what he has- a modern America.
I like how you attend to the setting here–a grocery store full of products whose origins, even in the ’50s, were a mystery. Whitman’s open road becomes the “open corridors” of the labyrinthian supermarket where paranoia (the store detective) persists. Lawrence Ferlinghetti would write of the Beats as Whitman’s “Wild Children.” But here, Whitman is “childless”–a striking declaration in a class that looks to trace all his children across the last century and beyond.
There’s this persistent move in poets to somehow forget how Whitman often stalled out at the crisis stage as well, and I’m never sure how I feel when poets like Ginsberg create this mythic Whitman to pit against the present. What of the crazed Whitman we see in “Respondez!” which I read at the end of class yesterday? He was already elegizing a lost America of love at so many points in his work.