Study Guide

A Supermarket in California Introduction

By Allen Ginsberg

A Supermarket in California Introduction

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.

What is A Supermarket in California About and 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.

A Supermarket in California Resources

Websites

The Academy of American Poets
These guys have tons to say on our man Allen.

Whitman at the Academy
And they'd never leave out Whitman, either.

Lovin' Lorca
He'd like to thank the Academy for giving him a page, too.

Ginsberg's Official Website
Run by his estate, this site's got the goods on Ginsberg. You could spend hours cruising its offerings.

Video

Ginsberg reads "Heart Sutra"
In the early 90s, not long before his death, Ginsberg was taped reading one of the most important Buddhist scriptures. Ommmmm.

James Franco as Ginsberg
Yep, you heard that right. Check out this trailer from the movie Howl.

Audio

A Reading at the Supermarket
Allen Ginsberg reads his poem. It's pretty nifty to hear the poem the way it was meant to be heard.

Listen to "Howl"
Allen Ginsberg reads his explosive poem (in two parts). Fair warning: there's some explicit content in here, so don't play this one for the kiddos.

Images

Allen Ginsberg
Working hard in 1955. Hey, maybe he's writing "Supermarket."

Ginsberg…
…with a beard to rival Whitman's.

Walt Whitman
The lonely old courage-teacher, in all his chapeau'd glory.

Historical Documents

How It All Began
Check out this page from the original typescript of Howl, complete with Ginsberg's super sloppy notes.

From the Man Himself
Here's a signed copy of "Supermarket." How much do you wish you had this in your library?

Books

Howl
Pick up a copy pronto. It's a necessary addition to your poetry collection.

Leaves of Grass
Read Ginsberg's inspiration for so much of his work, and one of the most important works in all of American literature. For reals.

Movies & TV

Howl
This recent flick fictionalizes the story of the writing of Howl and its censorship trial. Plus it stars James Franco as Ginsberg. Need we say more?

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