A Supermarket in California
by Allen Ginsberg
Stanza 3 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
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.)
- The speaker is now starting to seem more and more distressed. He's asking his imaginary friend for directions. And not directions to, like, a movie theater.
- He's asking about his life's direction, and there's not much of an answer. The supermarket is closing, and dude's got nowhere to go. Where will his life lead him? There's a sense of desperation here.
- FYI: Walt Whitman had an awesomely long beard. The speaker asks the imaginary Walt to use it as a compass, which strikes Shmoop as both hilarious and handy.
- The speaker then tells us, in a parenthetical statement, that this whole trip to the supermarket is "absurd." He calls their little imagined shopping trip an "odyssey," also known as an epic journey.
- Does the shopping trip seem like an epic journey to you? Probably not. The speaker seems aware of this, because he calls the excursion "absurd." It's an ironic moment because he's saying one thing and meaning another. This trip is no odyssey.
- And what about this book? Well, Whitman spent most of his long and illustrious literary career writing and re-writing and re-writing and re-writing one awesome book of poetry, called Leaves of Grass. It seems like the speaker feels small while holding such an important and massive book of poems. But Shmoop has another theory, too…
In this parenthetical, it's almost as if the speaker is stepping out of himself and acknowledging the fact that it's totally weird that he's dream-shoplifting with Walt Whitman in a California supermarket.
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely. Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
- The speaker asks even more questions. Will they walk alone all night through dark streets? The speaker seems to imply that the answer is yes, as he answers his own question. He says that the trees are adding shade to the darkness of the night, and that he and Walt will continue to be lonely.
- Then another question: will they go home to their silent cottage, while the rest of the rest of America sleeps, blue cars in their driveways?
- In this last question, the speaker draws a distinction between himself (and his imaginary friend Walt) and most Americans. Most Americans, he seems to suggest, have blue automobiles in their driveways, which seems about right. Most American live in suburbs after all.
- They all have traditional, nuclear family lives. They're not gay. They're not lonely old poets who wander around supermarkets. They don't have imaginary friends. They don't eye grocery boys.
- Instead, they have blue automobiles. They are defined by their possessions, unlike the speaker, who is defined, at least in this poem, by his relationship with a dead poet with a spectacular beard.
- Here's the major question of this line: is the speaker criticizing these suburbanites with their blue automobiles? Is he envying them? We think you could argue either way.
- That being said, the phrase "lost America of love" seems to give us a hint. With this phrase, the speaker suggests that in Whitman's time (meaning, in the 19th-century) America was different. America was about love, he seems to suggest, not consumerism (represented by those blue cars).
- We think that this is a nice sentiment, but, that being said, Ginsberg is skating over a whole lot of issues here—slavery, the Civil War, the rise of industry, poor labor conditions. You know, all those lovely 19th-century things.
- Was there ever a real "America of love"? The speaker seems to think so, but we think he's leaving out quite a bit of important history by idealizing the past.
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have
when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the
boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
- Okay, so this final line of the poem is tough! But never fear: Shmoop is here. Here's what you need to know.
- In Greek mythology, Charon is a ferryman who carries the souls of dead people across the river Styx, which marks the boundary between the world of the living and the world of the dead (the underworld).
- Lethe, also from Greek mythology, is a river of forgetting and oblivion. Anyone who drinks from it experiences a complete loss of memory.
- So in these final lines, the speaker brings some heavy-duty Greek mythology into the poem. But he's mixing things up here, by combining two different myths.
- While Charon brings dead people across the river Styx, in the poem, the speaker imagines that he's brought Whitman over a different river: Lethe. So what's the deal? Did Ginsberg mix up his myths? We think not. He was a pretty smart dude, and he knew his Greek mythology. So why change things up?
- To answer this question, let's back up a bit. The speaker once again addresses Whitman. He calls him "dear father" (acknowledging Whitman's creative influence on him), and "courage-teacher." Whitman is not just a creative inspiration for the speaker. He's also a spiritual teacher because he has taught the speaker courage.
- He asks Whitman again about his America. How different was Whitman's 19th-century America from the speaker's 1950s America? He doesn't answer this question, but in asking it, he seems to acknowledge that maybe Whitman's America wasn't perfect, either.
- While he idealized Whitman's America (the "America of love") earlier, now he admits that maybe there never was an America of love. What kind of American of love, he seems to suggest, would leave its most beloved poet stranded on the banks of Lethe?
- The poem ends with this haunting mythology remix. Instead of being fully transported to the underworld by Charon, the speaker imagines that Whitman is left gazing into Lethe. The journey, as the speaker imagines it, is incomplete. And if Whitman drinks the water, he will forget everything.
- We are left only with the image of Whitman, possibly about to forget everything he's ever known or written about his beloved America. It's a terribly sad image, both for the speaker, and for us. It seems very, very far away from the neon supermarket.