A Supermarket in California Themes
by Allen Ginsberg

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ginsberg uses Whitman and his “Song of Myself” as an ironic counterpoint to “A Supermarket in California,” though the irony is shaded by Ginsberg’s remorse for himself, Whitman, and America. For Ginsberg, America in the twentieth century has reneged on its promise of opportunity, freedom, and liberty. Where Whitman in the nineteenth century found and celebrated diversity in the American people, as he sings in “Song of Myself,” Ginsberg finds only homogeneity. Where Whitman saw an endless horizon of land to explore—the pageant of the American landscape—Ginsberg sees only “solitary streets,” houses with their lights out, “blue automobiles in driveways,” and “the neon fruit supermarket.”

Thus the images of America that Ginsberg sees are not the ones he is “shopping for.” This town and supermarket exist everywhere in the United States, each market and each town, in their design and emphasis on materialism, trying to keep up with all the others. America’s melting pot has become an all too grim reality.

Try as America might to obscure its differences—its variety of people and their desires, ambitions—it cannot hide all of its parts. The very fact that poets such as Whitman, García Lorca, and Ginsberg, who have deviated from the norm sexually as well as artistically, exist testifies to this truth. That Ginsberg still wants to write about America, even in lamentation, indicates the emotional attachment and investment he has made in the country, as well as the force with which he has believed in Whitman’s dream. No matter how hard the mainstream tries to homogenize and tame the wild, “barbaric yawp” (as Whitman put it) within us, Ginsberg and others continue to sound it out loud and strong.

In the final...

(The entire section is 443 words.)