A Supermarket in California by Allen Ginsberg: Summary and Analysis

A Supermarket in California is a poem by American poet Allen Ginsberg first published in Howl and Other Poems in 1956. This poem is a tribute to Walt Whitman in the centennial year of the first edition of Leaves of Grass. This poem criticizes the mainstream of American culture and is considered one of the major poetic works of the Beat Generation. It seems that there's nothing more American than a neon supermarket in California, filled with mothers, babies, and canned soup. This is not just a poem about Walt Whitman, Ginsberg, or even a supermarket, the title announces that it's a poem about America.

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

In this antithesis to Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg imagines Walt Whitman shopping in the supermarket of California. As he goes for shopping, Ginsberg follows him whenever he goes. He asks whether he was making the survey of the lost America of love. But the question carries the main concern of the poet. To Walt Whitman, America is the country of democracy, love, benevolence, kindness and so on. But all these things have been lost in today’s America. This nation has not inherited its past virtues and has been forgotten the ideals of Walt Whitman. Whitman always taught love and affection to the Americans, but modern Americans could not learn his values. So Ginsberg metaphorically says ‘childless.’ Children inherit the father’s blood in their veins, but no American has inherited those values from their father. When Whitman weeps even when the bird weep, his children are not weeping even when the bird weeps, his children are not weeping even when the human beings weep. They are merciless and unkind today. Therefore, Whitman is lonely without children in today’s America.

Whitman and Ginsberg represent two different ideals of American society. When in the longest lines of his poems Whitman sings of beautiful and democratic America, Ginsberg in the same style presents the dark and ugly aspect of America. In fact, Ginsberg worries that Whitman’s America is no more in an existence. While Whitman worries when he-bird loses his mate and consoles with the thought that death is just a transition from one mode of life to another, Ginsberg raises a question: Is the sympathy, love, affection and human behavior present in contemporary America?

It's nighttime, and it’s dark, and the speaker wanders aimlessly, staring at the full moon and posing deep questions about the meaning of life that he'll never get answers to. In this setting of night, the speaker follows Walt Whitman in the supermarket of California. Supermarket in itself is the icon of material prosperity and progress. It makes availability of many items under a single roof. This also highlights the swiftness a supermarket provides. But in such America the speaker feels headache finding Whitman childless. Whitman always preaches humanity, democracy, mutual respect and inclusiveness. His America is the America of prosperity in terms of humanity. Therefore, his America is human America. He teaches courage to the people to love each other, but that old courage-teacher America of America does not have any children. If he had any children, they would inherit certain qualities from their father. Since these qualities are no more present in America, he has no children. Probably, the speaker's headache stands for his worry about loveless America. As a poet of the counterculture, he finds America without love. Therefore, he describes it as the lost America of love.

In concluding part of the poem, he further intensified the description of loveless America with the mythical reference of Charon and Lethe. Lethe is a river which brings forgetfulness in the underworld and Charon is the ferryman who brought the souls of the dead across the river. Here, material prosperity has become Charon; when people sink in the river of material prosperity, they forget the essential humanity and love. What Americans were advertising as American prosperity, the speaker finds adversity and hollowness. Humanity has been replaced by petty self-interested selfishness. Because of them family values have collapsed. The scene of chopping also indicates the loss of family values among the American. By the time they should be joining families or the family values, they are in the supermarket shopping for images. So, in the prose poem he is presenting the antithetical vision of America as given by Walt Whitman.

Allen Ginsberg writes this poem in vers libre technique which is an open form of poetry that rejects conventional meter, rhyme, musical pattern and consistency. It follows the naturalness of speech pattern, thus it is a flexible form of free verse. It is also called prose poem.

The main issue of the poem is to portray the difference between the American society that is shown by Walt Whitman and the chaotic America of Allen Ginsberg. From the time of Whitman to Ginsberg, America has experienced the civil war, two world wars, the industrial revolution, hydrogen bomb, mustard gas, and the new era of technological revolution. Through this change, now America has lost its essence and beauty that once Whitman used to sing in his poetry. ‘Love’ of Whitman has been replaced by Ginsberg’s ‘supermarket and automobiles.’

Related Topics

Howl: Summary and Analysis

Allen Ginsberg: Biography