A Supermarket in California Introduction
In A Nutshell
Shmoop's gonna go out on a limb here (which we've been known to do) and guess that you've probably heard of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. You know, that crazy, screeching, ultimately awesome epic rant?
Well, it turns out that Howl wouldn't be Howl without those other tinier poems that came along with it. After all, the book wasn't just Howl, it was Howl and Other Poems. Unfortunately, people tend to forget about the little guys.
And they really shouldn't. Because in 1956, when Ginsberg was putting his book together, he didn't want Howl to stand alone. The other poems in in the book, while often overlooked, have come to enhance the meaning of Howl, if you're willing to take a closer look.
"A Supermarket in California," which is definitely the most famous of Howl's minor poems, is one of those little guys that tackles many of the same themes as the poem in whose shadow it sits. But it's a bit quieter, a bit less explicit, a bit more introspective. No one is "starving hysterical naked" in this one.
That means that the poem, which takes place in—you guessed it—a supermarket in California, is a great place to start if you're hoping to get your Beat-feet wet. It's a calmer Howl, but no less powerful for its lack of hullabaloo. After all, it's all about the speaker imagining himself grocery-shopping with the late, great Walt Whitman, the father of American poetry, and one-time sporter of the World's Best Beard. You don't get much more awesome than that.
Why Should I Care?
Admit it. You totally people-watch in grocery stores. And you totally judge those people for what they buy. Whole milk? Really? Non-fat mayo? Gross. Off-brand Oreos? Terrible idea!
But imagine, instead of spying on strangers, you were scoping out your hero. For Shmoop, that's Bruce Springsteen, but we imagine he has a Jersey underling to do his groceries, so that's not gonna happen anytime soon. For Ginsberg, it's the Wondrous Walt Whitman, purveyor of prosey poetry and every verser's favorite grandpa-esque figure. (Seriously, Shmoop can't wait to get a bear hug from this guy upon our arrival at the Pearly Gates.)
In "A Supermarket in California," Allen Ginsberg's speaker has a vision of Walt Whitman running errands (Celebrities! They're just like us!), only instead of judging the guy for being so cheap about bananas, the two of them share a solitary moment of togetherness as they wander the aisles, lonely and tired. The speaker asks, "Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?" and suddenly, we get it:
Instead of judging the middle-aged dude in a tracksuit buying half-off Lean Cuisines, maybe you should smile, share a cosmic moment, and ask him which way his beard points. After all, we're all in this odd, dreamy mess together. And no one's judging you for your jumbo bag of fun-size Snickers.