A Supermarket in California

Allen Ginsberg’s A Supermarket in California in its simplest form gives homage to influential authors and pokes fun using Ginsberg’s socio-political wit. The narrator enters a California supermarket while on a stroll in search of some form of intellectual stimulation or motivation. During this visit, he thinks about three famous authors shopping and imagines how each would observe the same supermarket.

Although all three authors mentioned in this story were homosexual, I do not think the major theme is concerned with this subject. I assume at the very least Ginsberg was influenced by these three authors both by artistic merit and their similar lifestyles. Thus, it makes sense that he would include them in a story that notes authors in search of inspiration. Ginsberg concentrates on the activity of shopping in America and the peculiar place at which people shop. The narrator almost immediately portrays a sense of the current society and environment:

“In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into

the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!”

He certainly could have just described the supermarket as a fruit supermarket instead of the “neon fruit supermarket,” which conjures up images of the many garish supermarkets nationwide with their shoddy neon signs. The use of exclamation points seems almost condescending as he describes the mundane products and customers:

“What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at

night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies

in the tomatoes!”

Ginsberg switches focus from the products and buyers to Walt Whitman:

“I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,

poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the

grocery boys.

I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops?

What price bananas? Are you my angel?

It seems the narrator, in his search for some stimulus, imagines what Walt Whitman would do in the same setting. Would he be eyeing the grocery boys as a homosexual? Would he ponder some metaphysical question, “who killed the pork chops?” or “Are you my angel?” It is hard to tell just from the text if Ginsberg still has a sarcastic tone or if he is seriously considering what Whitman would be doing. I read that Walt Whitman was a major influence to Ginsberg so I imagine he would not poke fun of him in this way.

I believe Ginsberg is also discussing how his creative mind works and how the setting is relevant to his understanding of his own poetry. He describes his actions (and Walt Whitman’s) in the supermarket and how he would use all his senses to gain insight and abstract thought.

We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy

tasting artichokes, processing every frozen delicacy, and never

passing the cashier.

Ginsberg then questions where the setting and his observations are taking his creative mind. “Which way does your [Walt Whitman] beard point tonight?” Perhaps he means to ask the question, what do you gather from this situation? Ginsberg wonders what he will do after leaving the supermarket:

Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add

Shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

He describes the lost America, presumably one with a simpler lifestyle and perhaps with a nuclear-family household without gaudy neon signs and automatous shoppers.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue

Automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?

Ginsberg ends his poem searching for advice and inspiration from his favorite authors. He wonders what they would do “Ah, dear father, graybeard… what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry…” Ginsberg shows how he can gain insight in one of the most ordinary places in America. His description of the setting pokes fun of the shopping ritual performed by the general population. The same supermarket description also explains how his mind can passionately generate ideas.