Whitman’s Beard: Ginsberg’s Compass

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

I cannot help but laugh aloud at this particular line from Allen Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California”.

As readers of Walt Whitman, we’ve all come to understand that in Whitman’s attempt to be the poet of all he became a guide and an influence for many. I guess I knew this, but never really saw it on an individual level until I ran into Ginsberg’s poetry for what seems like the millionth time in my academic career. I knew that Allen Ginsberg was influenced enormously by Whitman but I never really realized just how much of a guiding light Whitman was to Ginsberg until now.

I believe that Whitman has managed to incorporate a little bit of everyone into his poems. He appeals to the human spirit and I think the Whitman that most people read has captured an important part of humanity and a freedom that we all desire, some more desperately than others. The Whitman that appealed to Ginsberg was the homosexual

Allen Ginsberg embracing his sexuality (and also embracing Peter Orlovsky) (cropped in the interest of appropriateness)

Whitman and the courageous Whitman. Ginsberg refers to Whitman in “A Supermarket in California” as a “lonely old courage-teacher”. It seems to me that Ginsberg found courage in accepting himself and his homosexuality in the courage that Whitman had. Not only was Ginsberg inspired in his life by Whitman but, like so many others, found something quite enticing and desirable about Whitman’s poetry.

Ginsberg’s poem, “A Supermarket in California” is an incredibly Whitman-esque poem. From the unfathomably lengthy lines to the critique of worldly things, this work has Whitman’s influence all over it (not to mention Ginsberg’s inclusion of Whitman beginning in line 1 and other “sightings” throughout). Interestingly, Ginsberg seems to restrain Whitman’s grand catalogues of humanity and reduce them into the constraints of a single supermarket. The men and women that Whitman would detail in great length all seem to be present in this supermarket, but without any grandiose. Ginsberg is critical of the supermarket emphasizing that the nature that Whitman so loved and described is now reduced to bits of nature that can be purchased within a supermarket.

I think Ginsberg is showing strong Whitman influences but questioning them in a different society that Whitman knew. I wonder how Whitman would feel about seeing his great catalogues of humanity reduced to a single institution.

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3 Responses to Whitman’s Beard: Ginsberg’s Compass

  1. Anton Vander Zee says:

    As we’ll see when we read Howl, Ginsberg didn’t always truncated Whitman’s catalogs. He reveled in–and recreated for his own time–their uncanny, critical energy.

    • Cali O'Hare says:

      I guess I got a little messy with my wording in the last point. I’m not meaning to say that Ginsberg wanted to reduce the catalogues but I think that for the purpose of what he was trying to convey in this poem it was a necessary move in order to prove a point. Sorry about that.

  2. Nicole Monforton says:

    Last semester, I studied Ginsberg in detail but had never studied Whitman. When first reading “Song of Myself” a couple weeks ago, the first thought that came to my mind was how much Whitman reminded me of Ginsberg. It’s interesting that that thought can go both ways, when one reads Ginsberg they see traces of Whitman and when one reads Whitman they see traces of Ginsberg. Though a century apart, Ginsberg and Whitman had a very similar style of writing- such as “Howl” and “Song of Myself”, poems that often seem to be one long, rambling thought. Each poet wrote during a revolutionary time in American history, working to steer America in the right direction.

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