I saw you, Walt Whitman…

The genius of Allen Ginsberg and the Beats is inspiring, and while I wish no offense to Walt Whitman, I feel that Ginsberg looked to and inherited Whitman’s poetic energy and style, but took it one step further.  Nevertheless, with my love already of Ginsberg and my new knowledge of Whitman I can read “A Supermarket in California” in a whole new light.  I’ve always loved how this poem presents the supermarket as representative of the tranquilized state of the 1950s and of the modern world.  People no longer chose or make what they want, but purchase what is designed and provided by others.  The poem takes a mixed attitude, leaving us unsure whether it holds out hope for the future or that we can never return to the previous better state.  However, once we look at the influence of Whitman in the poem, I think it implies that the hoped for state of America is impossible.

Whitman is evident in the poem via the use of long lines, catalogs, and love of nature, but he is also a character.  Ginsberg sets him up as a representative of the idyllic past, which contrasts with the degraded present world.  Whitman is a “childless, lonely old / grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator / and eyeing the grocery boys” (lines 12-4).  Here Ginsberg also identifies Whitman as a homosexual, one of the many ways Whitman and Ginsberg do not fit into this modern scene.  Repeatedly, Ginsberg asks advice of him (“Where are we going Walt Whitman?”) which presents Whitman as a spiritual and poetic father.  Ginsberg wants to learn from Whitman how to be a poet, especially in the present time, and how to remain optimistic like him.  In the end, I think the poem offers us not a solution to the current world or a way to return to the ideal past, but rather an alternative.  Whitman and Ginsberg “strode down the open corridors together in / our solitary fancy…possessing every / frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier”.  They avoid the detective and the matrix of the supermarket because they do not pay.  Perhaps they represent an alternative lifestyle to the commoditization and homogenization of the 1950’s and Ginsberg is calling upon Whitman and Lorca’s poetic skill in order to pass this alternative on.

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2 Responses to I saw you, Walt Whitman…

  1. Catherine O'Hare says:

    I’ve always love ‘ol Walt but I agree that I feel like Ginsberg took it one step further, and for that I have a great appreciation towards Ginsberg and his work.

  2. AVZ says:

    I love this emphasis not on a “solution” but an “alternative.” Poetry itself–its “form” thinking back to the Sunflower Sutra–is just such an alternative space. Not a solution, but a space in which one can erect in however constrained a space some piece of that grand “republic of poetry” for which Whitman stood.

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