Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” is both a haunting reflection on the hollow commercialism of the 1950s and an ode to Walt Whitman. The poem describes the empty comforts of a supermarket filled with superfluous domestic products and the his hope that Whitman can guide him towards something real.
With a “hungry fatigue” Ginsberg searches the market for anything possessing raw, natural beauty. He is looking for evidence of the world illustrated in Whitman’s poetry, but the fruit he finds is “neon” and the store is shrouded in “penumbras.” Ginsber describes Whitman as a “lonely old grubber” who also seems to be searching for signs of life as he asks the grocery boys, “Who killed the pork chops? What Price are Bananas? Are you my angel?” In this supermarket filled with trappings of American consumerism, Whitman is miraculously able to enjoy “Every frozen delicacy” while disregarding the store’s demands for profit and payment.
With the second to last stanza Ginsberg wearily addresses Walt Whitman:
Where are we going Walt Whitman? The doors close in an 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.
With these lines he seems to acknowledge that while his beloved idol Walt Whitman would not be able to make sense of the “Tranquilized Fifties,” he could at least be a comforting spiritual presence.