Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Peaches and Penumbras: Ginsberg's "Supermarket in California"

Academic journal article Notes on Contemporary Literature

Peaches and Penumbras: Ginsberg's "Supermarket in California"

Article excerpt

Yes, Walt, / Afoot again, and onward without halt--/ Not soon, nor suddenly--No, never to let go / My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman--/ so--

Hart Crane, The Bridge

In 1955, the year Allen Ginsberg wrote "Howl," the apocalypse poem that brought him immediate fame when it was published a year later, he also wrote "A Supermarket in California," a relatively short visionary poem in the Whitman tradition of American poetry. To put forth the idea of America as a "terrestrial paradise"--the locus of the country's dreams of super-abundance--Ginsberg offers a metonym--the 1950s supermarket. As he sees it, the California supermarket is a cornucopia of things familiar and curious, of culled flora and dressed-out fauna--bananas, artichokes, watermelons, avocados, pork chops. Meats and groceries are showcased to attract the buying customer. But the poet, hoping to add to his store of poetic figures, shops, as well, for images and symbols.

The narrator's guide in this paradisal journey is Walt Whitman, famous for his lists and enumerations, just as a generation earlier Whitman had been the guide for the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, the author of a so-called "New York Cycle" of poems, including "Ode to Walt Whitman," published ultimately as Poet in New York. In Ginsberg's California poem, Whitman is discovered hanging out near the watermelons. But not all is hunky dory in America's version of the "terrestrial paradise," as the good gray poet had always suspected, and, "poking among the meats," he will ask the "grocery boys" he is eyeing: who "killed" the pork chops on display? And, sticking with innuendo--for there has been a human price paid for the benefit of the United Fruit Company--he will know the price of bananas.

The poet has had his vision. But there's more. If Walt questions the grocery boys, if he (along with Ginsberg) cruises the aisles, "tasting" artichokes, "possessing" "frozen delicacies"; if Walt looks to them, seeking his "Angel" (elsewhere Ginsberg has asked, "America when will you be angelic? …

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