Study Guide

A Supermarket in California Literature and Writing

By Allen Ginsberg

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Literature and Writing

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon. (1)

The poem begins with an apostrophe (or a direct address) to Whitman himself. The whole poem is spoken to him. It sounds like the speaker's got a pretty awesomely poetic imaginary friend.

In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations! (2)

Whitman was known for his enumerations—his long lists, or catalogues of things. In this way, Ginsberg's poems are a lot like Whitman's. A lot of his poems catalogue the world around him, and "Supermarket" is no exception.

What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons? (3)

Garcia Lorca was an early 20th-century Spanish poet and playwright. It seems like Ginsberg's got his eye on more than one poetic father. But what is it about Lorca that he admires or relates to? You might want to do a little digging to get the scoop on this famous Spanish poet.

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys. I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel? (4-5)

The speaker imagines that Whitman is a lonely old man who hits on grocery boys. Is this how the speaker sees himself as well? Will he grow up to be a Whitman?

I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective. We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier. (6-7)

The speaker imagines that he and Whitman are outlaws—they steal food! They're hunted by the store detective! Perhaps he sees themselves as poetry outlaws, too. After all, Whitman's poetic techniques were way outside the box in his day.

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.) (8-9)

The speaker looks to Whitman as a source of knowledge, and asks for advice about the direction of his life. He feels a bit silly about it all, though. He thinks of Whitman's famous book Leaves of Grass, and feels pretty silly about the whole supermarket scenario that he's been imagining.

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? (10-11)

The speaker imagines that Whitman lived in a "lost American of love." He believes that they're both lonely in 1950s America, but that, perhaps, Whitman's 19th-century America was quite different.

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? (12)

The poem ends with a haunting image of Whitman stranded on the bank of the river of oblivion and forgetting. The speaker questions whether Whitman's America was much better than his. While we don't get an answer from Whitman, the poem ends on this decidedly sad and creepy note. Somehow, we don't really think that Whitman's America was an "America of love," either.

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