"A Supermarket in California" is a poem by Allen Ginsberg, one of the foremost poets of mid-20th century America. The poem's speaker—generally read as Ginsberg himself—enters the garish, brightly-lit supermarket and has a vision of Walt Whitman, a 19th-century American poet, whose work he has been reading. Whitman, for his part, acts almost like an alien placed on Earth from outer space; the supermarket environment doesn't make sense to his 19th-century perspective. The speaker imagines playfully tasting the produce and not paying for any of it, before asking more searching and philosophical questions of his poet guide. He wonders whether America has grown too preoccupied with consumerism and a money-orientated way, and in doing so if the country has lost its way and its capacity to love. The poem ends with an image of Whitman in the underworld, suggesting that Whitman's idealistic and romantic vision of America is probably already dead.
What thoughts I ...
... of your enumerations!
What peaches and ... by the watermelons?
I saw you, ...
... you my Angel?
I wandered in ...
... passing the cashier.
Where are we ...
... and feel absurd.)
Will we walk ...
... our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, ... waters of Lethe?
Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.
In the Poet's Own Voice — Ginsberg reads "A Supermarket in California" and offers a short introduction.
Whitman and America — Ginsberg discusses his literary hero with two fellow poets.
Whitman's Life and Poetry — A valuable resource on Ginsberg's literary hero from the Poetry Foundation.
Shopping in 1950s America — Color footage of supermarkets from the time of the poem's composition.
Ginsberg on Rimbaud — Transcript of a lecture by Ginsberg on another key influence, the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud (who used the prose poem form to great effect).
More Poems and Bio — Further reading of poems by Ginsberg, and useful essays too.
1What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
2 In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
3 What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!—and you, Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?
4 I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
5 I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
6 I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
7 We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.
8 Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
9 (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)
10 Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.
11 Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
12 Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?