Thursday, June 5, 2008

Allen Ginsberg in the Supermarket

Dear Everybody:

Speaking of visions and visionaries, here’s a poem from the late, great visionary Allen Ginsberg. In it, he imagines a vision of Walt Whitman in a supermarket. Enjoy!

A Supermarket In California
by Allen Ginsberg
What 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.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!

[The rest of the poem has been removed because it’s almost certainly still in copyright. But I doubt you’ll have any trouble finding it on the Web.]

Okay, the first thing you have to know is that Ginsberg didn’t really see Whitman in a supermarket. Maybe he saw somebody who looked like Whitman and that touched off this poem. But in whatever case, he was firmly in touch with reality.

The next thing you have to know is that Ginsberg was obsessed with Whitman. He loved the poems, loved the ecstatic quality of them, loved Whitman’s love of life and diversity (and what better model for diversity than a supermarket?), loved the fact that Whitman loved America, loved the fact that Whitman was gay. There was a similarity there (one of Ginsberg’s most famous lines was “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel”) and boy howdy, didn’t Ginsberg know it!

So in his imagination Ginsberg sees Whitman, his role model. “Where are we going?” he asks. Meaning himself, meaning his country. No answer, of course. But he thinks of the America of his childhood, lost in the past, and then of Whitman’s America, lost in his past. So it all resolves in a vision of America as ever-changing and yet still there when the old poet is dead and still there again when the young poet is dead. So it’s a love poem, really, to a country that is no more and yet remains.

I don’t need to tell you that Charon ferries the dead across the River Lethe to the afterlife.

All best,



Markin said...

Other elements to consider: Ginsberg's style, very similar to Whitman's; Whitman's love of the common man (no pun intended) as reflected in the common surroundings of Ginsberg's supermarket; the possible sexual imagery in the fruits and veggies (bit of a stretch, perhaps); and Whitman, at the end, who so famously looked forward to a future America in his poems, now forever in the past, looking at America across the waters of Lethe.

I suspect a re-reading of Whitman and then going back to the Ginsberg would be useful. I can't help but hear faint echoes, but my memory of Whitman is now dimmed by time ...

Nice analysis, Michael.

Michael Swanwick said...

A very nice expansion of my necessarily brief comments. The two poets definitely chime off of each other. They both could look a little silly by certain lights, yet each was a genuine Mensch. And the love of the common man was very real for the both. Whitman put in endless hours caring for wounded soldiers in the Civil War. While Ginsberg was easily the most approachable of the modern poets.

Whenever I think of Ginsberg, I think of the total eclipse of the sun in Virginia back in the early Seventies. Some friends saw him in a diner in Williamsburg afterward and went up to say hello. "Did you see the eclipse?" he asked them. "Oh, it was mad! Mad!"