Study Guide

A Supermarket in California Walt Whitman

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Walt Whitman

It's pretty clear to Shmoop that Walt Whitman is the driving force of this poem. The whole thing is addressed to him, he makes numerous appearances, and the poem ends with a haunting vision of him being left on a foggy riverbank of forgetfulness. So what's up with him? Why Whitman?

Well, to begin with, Ginsberg was a really big fan of his, and he borrowed much of his writing style from the 19th-century poet. So it makes sense, then, that Ginsberg's speaker looks to Whitman as a kind of poetic father. And not just in terms of poetry, but in terms of life. Like Ginsberg, Whitman was a gay man living in an America that was often, if not almost always, hostile to gay men and women. The speaker's relationship with Whitman is not just about poetry, then. Whitman comes to represent a lifestyle as well.

  • Line 1: The poem begins with an address to Walt Whitman. Most of the poem is spoken directly to him by our speaker. 
  • Line 2: The speaker brings up Whitman's "enumerations," or catalogues or lists of things, in his poems. Ginsberg's poems, like Whitman's, are filled with lots of these enumerations. 
  • Lines 4-5: The speaker imagines that he sees Whitman wandering, as he is, alone through the supermarket, checking out the grocery clerks as he goes. He overhears Whitman's sexually suggestive questions. His last question—"Are you my Angel?"—seems less suggestive, and frankly, quite sad and a little desperate. Is Walt going to find his soulmate in a grocery store? Well, hey, we guess you never know. There have been weirder love stories.
  • Lines 6-7: The speaker and Walt steal food from the supermarket, and the speaker imagines that they're being followed by the supermarket detective. Is this paranoia? Are they outlaws? 
  • Line 8: The speaker asks Whitman which direction they're heading in. Not just once the store closes, but in a bigger way. He wants to know which way to go in life. He wants to follow Whitman's beard (which, we have to admit, is pretty funny). 
  • Line 9: The speaker, holding Whitman's book, realizes the absurdity of the entire supermarket fantasy. 
  • Line 10-11: The speaker asks more questions. He both insists that he and Whitman are "solitary" and "together." He has Whitman, and yet, he's still alone. This contrasts with the "blue automobiles in driveways," which seem to represent a suburban way of life, with happy families in happy neighborhoods. He and Whitman are outcasts in 1950s culture.
  • Line 12: The speaker asks if Whitman's America was really all that different from his own. He imagines Whitman in mythological terms, standing on a smoking bank of Lethe, the river of forgetting and oblivion.

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