The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 538

“A Supermarket in California” is a short poem in free verse, its twelve lines divided into three stanzas. The title suggests a bland setting—not the expected source of a poem. The title and setting prove ironic, however, as Allen Ginsberg demonstrates that for most people in America, exploration goes no further than the local grocery store.

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The poem is written in the first person, which is typical of Ginsberg’s work; he writes very personally of his visions and experiences in America. Ginsberg is speaking in the first person not only to share his immediate sensuous experiences but also to invoke, by using this perspective, the American poet in whose footsteps he is attempting to walk: Walt Whitman.

In fact, Ginsberg speaks directly to Whitman in the poem’s first line as he wearily trudges down the streets of suburban California, “self-conscious looking at the full moonshopping for images.” He enters a bright “neon fruit supermarket” (line 2) as if here he might find the same image of America—the diversity and freedom, the limitless, democratic possibilities—that Whitman saw. What he sees in the market, however, is only the multitude of fruit and the families shopping together as if this were the richest experience they could share.

At the end of stanza 1, Ginsberg also spies the twentieth century Spanish poet Federico García Lorca standing by the watermelons. The sighting of García Lorca—a homosexual like Ginsberg and, many suspect, Whitman—creates a smooth transition to stanza 2, where Ginsberg chides Whitman for “eyeing the grocery boys” (line 4). In his mind he hears Whitman asking mundane questions about food prices, about “who killed the pork chops,” and if anyone will be his “Angel”—that is, will follow him (line 5). There is no response, but Ginsberg continues following the elder poet past aisles of canned goods, perhaps trailed by the store detective, who has noted Ginsberg’s suspicious appearance.

Stanza 2 ends with the poets tasting delicacies along the way but buying nothing. At the beginning of the final stanza, they find themselves with no place to go, since in an hour, when the store closes, they will be given their freedom again. Ginsberg looks to Whitman for advice and direction, and even “touches” Whitman’s book (presumably Leaves of Grass, 1855) for inspiration.

He gets no response and thus finds himself out on the “solitary streets,” with the “lights out in the houses,” where he and Whitman will “both be lonely” (line 10). He asks if it is possible that their walk will be a pleasant memory of “the lost America of love” (line 11), meaning the freer, untamed America of Whitman’s day, since, as he notes, they will also have to walk past the same blue cars in the same driveways, house after house. The poem ends on a note of despair as Ginsberg asserts that when Whitman’s journey ended, he found himself by the mythical waters of Lethe, one of the rivers in Hades. “What America did you have then,” he asks Whitman, and since the poem began in the first-person singular and shifted to the plural in stanzas 2 and 3, as if the two are journeying together, he seems to be including himself in this haunting question.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

What is most noticeable about the form of “A Supermarket in California” is its free verse, which again alludes to Whitman, the founder of the free verse style. Ginsberg even more closely associates himself with Whitman by exploiting the complexity of the structure and rhythm of this form. Whitman’s famous self-referential poem “Song of Myself” (1855) is the particular model for Ginsberg, as both poems employ convoluted sentence structures and...

(The entire section contains 1239 words.)

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