Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

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.”

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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 stanza, though, he is faced with the troubling question of where to go to find his joy and inspire his innermost being. His remorse for himself, Whitman, and America surfaces in the parenthesis of this stanza when he “touches” Whitman’s “book” (Leaves of Grass). Instead of being comforted and inspired, as Whitman intends in “Song of Myself” when he tells his readers not to fear taking the journey through America, for he (Whitman) will go with them, Ginsberg can think only of his “absurd” walk through the supermarket, perhaps followed by the store detective who is a symbol of the watchful eye of the nation’s conformity. As he leaves Whitman in Hades at the poem’s end, asking the “lonely old courage-teacher, what America/ did you have” then, one suspects that ultimately Ginsberg believes that he is the one who is left alone on the shore of “the black waters of Lethe.”

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