Supermarkets and the “Tranquilized Fifties”

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.

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2 Responses to Supermarkets and the “Tranquilized Fifties”

  1. Jen Green says:

    Although I agree that one of the crises in this poem is materialism/capitalism of the 1950’s, I think Ginsberg’s Whitman fantasy relieves another more desperate human crisis within Ginsberg: loneliness. Ginsberg begins the poem by entering a supermarket “self-conscious” and is overwhelmed by the “whole families shopping at night.” Even Lorca seems to be a part of this familial community that appears to be just as much on display as the items in the grocery store. As a resolution to being the outsider of this group, Ginsberg creates Whitman who he identifies with as “childless” and “lonely,” isolated by his concern with materialism and his search for life’s mystic truth (“my angel”). The two of them take a trip through the grocery store, pairing off like the families and enjoying the “artichokes” and “every frozen delicacy.”

    It is when Ginsberg touches Whitman’s physical symbol: his book, that he is rocked out of his hallucination and forced to remember he is an outsider of this world, and when he returns home to a dark and empty house “we’ll both be lonely.” When Ginsberg writes of Whitman ending his road as a poet or living human “on a smoking bank… on the black waters of lethe,” I believe that he is referring to the dictionary definition of Lethe as “forgetfulness” or “oblivion” but is not necessarily remarking on America forgetting about Whitman’s work. Instead I think that Ginsberg may be making the realization that even though a poet as grand as Whitman is remembered through his words, there is no family or children to carry on his name as well as to mourn/remember him in spirit.

  2. AVZ says:

    Great post, Dorothy–what a sad reading Ginsberg gives this poem, a sadness that Jen, in her comment, draws subtly out of the poem itself.

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