The Poem

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

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 lines that cannot be contained within one line on the typical printed page.

Each line of “A Supermarket in California” “contains multitudes,” as Whitman said of himself in “Song of Myself” (line 1326). For example, the first line invokes Whitman himself, sets the poem down on a suburban street in America, describes the speaker as having a “headache,” being “self-conscious,” and looking at “the full moon,” which, though traditionally a sign of lunacy, functions even better here to contrast with the artificial “neon” light of the supermarket in the next line. Outdoor America is easily traversed, in contrast to Whitman’s idea and to the reality of America in the nineteenth century.

The third line also supports this premise as it speaks of various fruits, families spending time shopping, and finally the homosexual poet García Lorca. By using García Lorca, Ginsberg points to two clear distinctions between the average American and the poets mentioned: the poets’...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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