Gregory Stephenson
PEACHES AND PENUMBRAS: Notes on Allen Ginsberg's A Supermarket in California

“... the surfeit of prosperity
                                    … the decay of faith...
                                    Walt Whitman Democratic Vistas (1871)

Lament for the lost possibilities of the United States and reprehension for what is perceived as the current fallen state of the nation are recurrent motifs in American literature. Among the writers of the Beat Generation -- reacting to the drift in post war America toward consumerism, conformity, and complacency -- the theme of the decline of American ideals is particularly prevalent.

Writing in A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), Lawrence Ferlinghetti deplores an America of "freeways fifty lanes wide on a concrete continent / spaced with bland billboards illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness"; an America "of the immigrant's dream come too true and mislaid / among the sunbathers." l Similarly, Bob Kaufman, in his poem "Benediction" (1958), rebukes the American nation for its shortcomings and failures, bringing his indictment of American society to an end with the bitter comment: "Every day your people get more and more / Cars, televisions, sickness, death dreams. / You must have been great / Alive." 2 And in a spirit akin to that of Kaufman and Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, writing in Myths and Texts (1960), expresses his anger and sorrow at the despoilation of the American continent by the impious, impercipient greed of its immigrant settlers: "All America hung on a hook / & burned by men, in their own praise.” 3

In the prose records of his journeys from ocean to ocean and from border to border across the United States, Jack Kerouac, too, often registers his sense of disillusionment at the displacement of traditional American ideals and aspirations by the forces of commercialism and conformity. In On the Road (1957) Kerouac deprecates the absurdity and futility of “millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities…” 4 In The Dharma Bums, (1958), the author notes with sadness and a sense of foreboding the growing domination in American life of "the middleclass non-identity ... rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time.” 5

And in a like manner, writing in The Naked Lunch in (1959), William Burrough describes the interior of America as “a vast subdivision, antennae of television to the meaningless sky. In lifeproof houses they hover over the young, sop up a little of what they shut out. Only the young bring anything in, and they are not young very long.” 6

The interrelated issues of the deterioration of American ideals, and of the potential redemption and renewal of those ideals, are central concerns in the writing of Allen Ginsberg.

In his first published collection of poetry, Howl and Other Poems (1956), these concerns inform the title poem, "America", and “A Supermarket in California”. 7

In “Howl” the United States -- together with other nations of the world -- is depicted as being under the sway of a demonic deity, Moloch, whose evil dominion imposes upon both individual and national consciousness a state of spiritual, mental and moral degradation. Elsewhere in "Howl”, the United States is personified as a beloved but sickly figure who “coughs all night and won’t let us sleep."

In "America”, the poet apostrophizes the American nation; by turns reproaching and cajoling it, remonstrating with and confiding in it, insulting it and mocking it, admonishing and exhorting it, and, at last, pledging to extend to it -- according to the poet's own principles -- his support and aid. The traits of the American nation that are condemned and ridiculed in the poem are those perceived as deriving from what the poet views as the country's essential condition of atrophied idealism and stultified spirituality. The poet's concluding vow to come to the aid of his nation is to be understood as his promise to dedicate himself to the redemption of America from its fallen state.

The state of the American nation is also the subject of "A Supermarket in California”, in which -- in contrast to the more polemical strategies of "Howl" and "America" -- the theme is treated in elegiac fashion, though not without certain lighter touches.

The central oppositional images of the poem are those of Walt Whitman and the supermarket, each with its own resonances and associations. It is the poet-narrator who in his imagination brings the two into juxtapositions the apparition of the neglected, rejected American visionary wandering the brightly lit, well-stocked aisles of a suburban self-service grocery store. Employing again -- as in “America” -- the device of apostrophe, the poem is addressed to Walt Whitman.

Essentially, the poem concerns three phases or levels of experience which in the course of an evening succeed each other in the mind of the narrator: a mood of dejection, a sudden moment of vision and exhilaration, and, finally, a meditative, reflective state of mind.

At the outset of the evening, the narrator feels somewhat dispirited, walking the streets alone "with a headache / self-conscious", and weakened by a sensation of "hungry fatigue". He feels also a sort of depletion of the imagination that prompts him to go in quest of images, seeking them even in so unlikely a place as a supermarket, which with its cellophane-wrapped, artificially colored, flavor-enhanced, mass-produced food represents the triumph of standardization and impersonality.

Inspired by a recollection of the characteristic enumerative style of Walt Whitman’s poetry with its celebratory lyrical inventories of the physical world, the narrator enters the supermarket where he is confronted with a spectacle of profusion and consumption -- crowded aisles busily astir with shopping families. From remembrance of Whitman's rhapsodic catalogs, the narrator is then moved to vision, seeing amid the bustle of the brightly-lit supermarket the figure of Walt Whitman and hearing him speak.

At first reading, the questions posed by Whitman to the shoppers and the supermarket employees may seem frivolous or absurd, but upon closer consideration his inquiries reveal themselves to be pointed and pertinent. They are the very type of question of which in the poem "As I Sat Alone by Blue Ontario’s Shore" Whitman wrote, warning his readers: “I am he who walks the States with a barb’d tongue, questioning everyone I meet." 8

"Who killed the porkchops?" asks Whitman of one shopper. Indeed, who undertakes to perform for us the more disagreeable tasks of our society and our economy? What are such persons paid? What are their working conditions? What do they think and feel? What kind of lives do they lead? Remote from the sordid realities of labor in a slaughterhouse, shoppers do not often pause to consider human questions of this kind when purchasing their packaged meats at the supermarket.

Similarly, Whitman asks "What price bananas?" The syntax of the question suggests that he is not merely seeking to learn the sales price of bananas but rather that he is asking for a consideration of the cost of bananas in terms of human misery and oppression on the American-owned fruit plantations and in the “banana republics" of Latin America. At what price in the toil and tears of others and at what cost to our own ideals of human liberty do we enjoy the convenience of buying bananas inexpensively at the supermarket?

Whitman's third and final question -- "Are you my Angel?” --is the most unsettling and subversive of his inquiries, for it represents the fundamental, ultimate question that we are desperately determined neither to put to each other nor to ask ourselves. The condition upon which our collective illusion of being is contingent is the suppression of our awareness of ourselves as angels. 9 To reassure ourselves that we are real, to protect our precious fictitious selves, our cherished personalities, we are obliged to deny our identity as spirit, to renounce our natural innocence and nobility.

Now completely occupied and absorbed by his vision of Whitman, the narrator follows the apparition among the aisles of the supermarket. Soon he achieves a comradely communion with the spectre of the dead poet, and together in fancy they partake of the various wares of the store, and -- since their consumption of them is purely imaginary -- they do so without obligation to pay for the foods they enjoy in this manner: “tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier."

I wonder if here Ginsberg can have been recalling or may have been alluding indirectly to certain passages in the poetry of Walt Whitman which propose similar imaginary feasts? In "Song of Myself", for example, Whitman asserts that "I or you, pocketless of a dime, may purchase the pick of the earth.”10 And in "Song of the Open Road." he celebrates the capacity of the human imagination "To see no possession but you may possess it -- enjoying all without labor or purchase -- abstracting the feast, yet not abstracting one particle of it.” 11

The narrator's moment of excitement and elation -- the imaginary feast shared with Whitman in the supermarket -- is of brief duration, whereafter his mood quickly descends and he grows more subdued and meditative. Now in the last stanza of the poem, he addresses a series of questions to the restless apparition of Whitman, questions that begin in uncertainty, then increasingly convey a sense of melancholy and loss.

The narrator's questions call forth resonances that make his personal sadness and loneliness germane to the state of the American nation, a connection that is then made explicit in the phrase "the lost America of love". The tone of this last stanza is gently elegiac; the implications of the apparition of Walt Whitman in the supermarket -- which earlier possessed a half-comic incongruity -- are in these lines more fully and more solemnly apprehended, more keenly felt.

The note of sadness that pervades the last stanza of the poem proceeds from the narrator's disappointment in mid-twentieth century America. The nation's notable success in achieving material abundance -- as evidenced in the poem by the busy, well-stocked supermarket and by the automobiles in the driveways of suburban houses -- has been accomplished, he feels, at the cost of its neglect of the ideals that once were its motivating energy and the visions that were once its ultimate aim. These forgotten visions and ideals are embodied in the poem by the unquiet spirit of Walt Whitman. Modern America is -- very tellingly in the view of the narrator -- a nation unheeding of the vital voice of Walt Whitman, unmindful of its boldest prophet and most impassioned bard; and through its disregard for and indifference to Whitman has relegated him to a wraith-like existence in the netherworld of the national consciousness. And so in sorrow Whitman's shade visits the supermarkets at night and walks the dark and empty streets of the suburbs, troubled by the unfulfilled historic promise of the American nation, grieving for the lost dream of new world community and spirituality.

Imagery of shadow and darkness is recurrent in the poem, growing progressively more marked and more intense in the course of the three stanzas. The events of the poem begin in early evening, move forward through the hour when the stores close, and end in the full darkness of night after the lights in the houses have been extinguished. The coming of dark in the poem is both gradual and cumulative. Even inside the brightly lit "neon fruit supermarket" there are portentous “penumbras" among the produce. Later, in the deserted streets among the darkened houses, "the trees add shade to shade”. The final image of the poem is of profoundest darkness: the dense underworld gloom of smoky Hades and "the black waters of Lethe”. 12

These images serve to effect in the poem a mood of malaise and melancholy, suggesting some fateful omission on the part of the American nation, implying behind all the bright abundance of contemporary American life the presence of a kind of dark blight.

Although the last stanza of the poem strikes a somber note and seems in the end to fade into gloom and obscurity, depicting the figure of Whitman as being confined in darkness and dispossessed of his beloved America, the apparent pessimism suggested in these final lines should be considered in relation to the implicit interaction between this portion of the poem and the preceding middle stanza in which Whitman is seen to appear in the supermarket. Whitman's bereft condition at the conclusion of the poem -- his arrival in the abode of the dead -- necessarily takes place prior in time (sixty-three years previous) to his return to earth as a spirit haunting a supermarket in California. My purpose in giving emphasis to so obvious a point is that considered in this manner the sequence of events in the text serves to affirm the irrepressible power of the idealism and vision that in the poem are embodied in the figure of Walt Whitman.

Viewed in their chronological and causal relations to each other, the events of the poem suggest that the qualities of idealism and vision cannot long be denied or restrained; ultimately these redemptive energies must under one or another guise manifest themselves. Read in this way, the note of sorrow and the sense of loss imparted by the last stanza are mitigated, and the poem may be seen to propose grounds for hope and belief.

Accordingly, the apparition of Walt Whitman at the supermarket and abroad in the land may be read as a sign that even in affluent, complacent postwar America a spirit of resistance and renewal is latent. Though Whitman's shade seems at first forlorn, a pitiable and ludicrous "lonely old grubber”, it proves to be a resolute and a purposive ghost, slyly subversive, a figure of eccentric dignity, representing a vivid reproof to petty contentment and a portent of revenant vision.

A concomitant theme of the poem is that of the communion-through-imagination of two isolated, lonely persons whose temporal existences take place in separate centuries. The narrator of the poem -- solitary, estranged from the life of his time -- achieves through the medium of imagination an affectionate bond with the dead poet Whitman, who becomes for him a companion and spiritual father. The narrator, who in his loneliness yearns backward in time in search of a kindred spirit, comes into conjunction with Whitman who so often in quest of communion and comradeship yearned into the centuries to come, by means of his poems projecting himself forward through time and death to embrace his future readers. The communion of the narrator and Walt Whitman constitutes a victory of the imagination and the heart's affections over the physical and temporal restraints of the material world, and represents a confirmation of Whitman' s assertion in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" that "the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us ... avails not -- distance avails not, and place avails not." 13

The spirit of Walt Whitman is not the only ghost to be encountered by the narrator in the supermarket. Just prior to sighting the shade of Whitman, the narrator glimpses in the produce department the ghost of Federico Garcia Lorca. The apparition of Lorca functions in the poem as a point of transition between the realistic description that has hitherto characterized the text and the imaginary-visionary passages that begin immediately hereafter in the second stanza with the manifestation of Whitman's spirit.

Additionally, though, the abrupt, brief appearance of Garcia Lorca in the poem represents, I believe, an acknowledgement on the part of Allen Ginsberg of Lorca's prior employment of the figure of Whitman's spirit as a central trope in a poem titled "Ode to Walt Whitman". 14 In Lorca's poem -- part of a sequence written by the poet during his sojourn in New York City in 1930 -- the spirit of Walt Whitman is invoked as exemplar of the American ideal. The poet-speaker of the ode praises the power and purity of Whitman’s poetic imagination, his erotic energy, and his spirituality, contrasting the nobility of Whitman's inspired vision of America with what Lorca perceives to be the debased condition of modern mechanized America.

Also in respect of particular images and devices, Ginsberg’s "A Supermarket in California" resonates with Lorca’s "Ode to Walt Whitman". In his ode Lorca employs a series of three rhetorical questions -- addressed to the city of New York -- which in their surreal but potently suggestive imagery, as well as their overall tonality, would seem to have served as inspiration for the three questions asked by the spirit of Whitman in Ginsberg’s poem. Lorca’s poet-speaker inquires:

"What angel do you carry hidden in your cheek?
What perfect voice will tell the truths of the wheat?
Who, the terrible dream of your stained anemones?”

Furthermore, the first of these questions is in terms of its central figure of thought noticeably akin to the question posed by Whitman in Ginsberg’s poem: "Are you my angel?" Similarly, the frequent occurrence in Lorca's ode of imagery pertaining to Walt Whitman's beard is echoed in Ginsberg’s “Supermarket". Finally, throughout his ode Lorca makes use of the technique of direct address, apostrophizing the spirit of Walt Whitman, a device of which Ginsberg also avails himself in his poem.

Another literary prototype for "A Supermarket in California”, and another source from which during the composition of his poem Allen Ginsberg may have drawn inspiration -- though probably inspiration of an unconscious character -- is Vachel Lindsay's "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight", written in 1914. 15

In Lindsay's poem the ghost of Abraham Lincoln roams restlessly through the night streets of a modern American town and ranges among the sleeping houses there. Lincoln’s spirit is seen by the poet to have returned in grief at the great suffering and oppression of humankind occasioned by the world war, and as a remembrance to “the sick world" that the ideal of a free and just society must not be forgotten and may yet be achieved.

The mournful figure of Lincoln’s spirit in Lindsay's poem may be seen to correspond in significant ways to the forlorn spirit of Whitman in Ginsberg’s "A Supermarket in California", in that both ghosts serve in their respective poems as embodiments of the American ideal as it was manifest in the historical past, and both appear again among their countrymen in order to disturb and to warn them, and to inspire and incite them.

Yet these echoes of and resonances with poems of Lorca and Lindsay notwithstanding, "A Supermarket in California" is neither derivative nor imitative. Rather, the poem is the product of a creative assimilation of literary influences in the imagination of the poet operating in combination with Ginsberg’s own distinctive poetic sensibility. 16

In a similar manner, while stylistically the poem is indebted to Whitman for its long loose lines and extended rhythms and for a syntax and a diction based on spoken language, Ginsberg creates of these elements -- augmented by an absorption of the free verse measures and imagistic concision of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound -- a synthesis that is all his own, an unmistakably individual poetic idiom.

Consistent with the anti-formalist aesthetic of the poem and its casual conversational tone, Ginsberg employs no figurative language, but particular realistic details of the text are potently suggestive, serving implicitly as metaphors. Thus, the narrator's observation that the doors of the supermarket will "close in an hour" conveys an ominous urgency, while the descriptive detail of “lights out in the houses" communicates a melancholy sense of the unawareness and apathy of the inhabitants of the houses and also of the narrator’s sad isolation from them.

But as well as being a structure of resonant images, "A Supermarket in California" is equally a poem of voice, that is of accents and inflections read on the page as words but heard in the mind of the reader as if uttered by a human voice. In a sense the narrative voice may be seen to represent a kind of aural metaphor. Already from the opening lines of the poem the voice of the narrator arrests and engages us. It is an honest, earnest voice, confiding and self-mocking, by turns eager and gleeful, anxious and uncertain, whimsical and wistful, sedate and meditative. And always intrinsic in the intimate narrative voice of the poem there is an affirmation of personal identity in a depersonalized age, and in an era of collective self-gratification a cry for human communion.

"A Supermarket in California" is a haunted, haunting poem, fraught with nostalgia for the America that might have been and sorrow for the dream gone wrong. Poignantly evoking the contradiction between the American promise and the American reality, the disparity between the possibility and the actuality, there is yet in the poem an element of hope as the poet strives to invoke from the American past a tradition and a guiding myth, and to summon a vision that can redeem and revitalize his nation.

With its colloquial immediacy and its elegiac stateliness, its playfulness and its wistful lyricism, the poem has stood up remarkably well to time and changing circumstances. Nearly half a century later, in our own era of affluence and indifference, consumerism and depersonalization, Ginsberg’s critique of material prosperity achieved at the price of spiritual impoverishment re-mains penetrating and pertinent.

1. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (New York: New Directions, 1958)
p. 9, p. 13.
2. Bob Kaufman, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New York: New Directions, 1965)
p. 9.
3. Gary Snyder, Myths and Texts (New York: Totem Press, 1960) p. 4.
4. Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Signet, 1958) pp. 89 - 90.
5. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (New York: Signet, 1959) pp. 32 - 33.
6. William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch (Paris: Olympia Press, 1959) pp. 16 - 17.
7. Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1956) "Howl" pp. 9 - 20; "A Supermarket in California” pp. 23 - 24; “America" pp. 31 - 34.
8. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (London: Oxford University Press, 1990) p. 265.
9. The theme of the opposition between personal consciousness and spiritual consciousness is central to much of the poetry of Howl and Other Poems. In the title poem this theme is expressed in the second section where the poet denounces "Mental Moloch ... Moloch whose name is the Mind." In this passage the ignorance and error that comprise ego-consciousness are seen as supplanting our original state of “natural ecstasy", thereby severing us from our inherent awareness of "heaven which exists and is everywhere about us!" Yet as Ginsberg observes in "Transcription of Organ Music", somewhere within our spirit there persists a knowledge of our truest, deepest being: "The world knows the love that's in its breast ... the suffering lonely world." The same theme informs "Sunflower Sutra”,Song”, and "In back of the real", and is also to be found in “America” where the poet demands to know "America when will you be angelic?" and in "Footnote to Howl" where the poem proclaims that “Everyman's an angel!"
10. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (London: Oxford University Press, 1990) p. 69.
11. Ibid. p. 127.
12. In this instance the poet mis-remembers the geography of the classical netherworld. It is the subterranean river Acheron, not the Lethe, across which Charon (in return for an obolus) ferries the souls of the departed. Perhaps Ginsberg thought here of the Lethe -whose water causes forgetfulness of the past in those who drink of it -- because he felt that Walt Whitman's work had been relegated to oblivion.
13. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (London: Oxford University Press, 1990) p. 130.
14. This poem is included in The Selected Poems of Federico Garcia Lorca, translated by Stephen Spender and J.L. Gili (New York: New Directions, 1955). In Allen Ginsberg’s journal for 1955, he notes having read this volume of Lorca translations in August of that year, the same year in which “A Supermarket in California" was written. See Allen Ginsberg, Journals Mid-Fifties, 1954 - 1958, edited by Gordon Ball, (New York: Harper Collins, 1995) p. 215.
15. Vachel Lindsay, The Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1934) p. 165.
16. A thematic counterpart or companion piece to “A Supermarket in California” is Jack Kerouac’s poem, “Berkeley Song in F Major”. Written in the autumn of 1955 while Kerouac was a guest at Ginsberg’s rented cottage in Berkeley, California, Kerouac’s “Berkeley Song” also employs as its central image the figure of a revenant, redemptive Walt Whitman. As the precise dates of composition for “A Supermarket” and “Berkeley Song” are not ascertainable, it is unclear whether Kerouac’s poem preceded and thus influenced, or followed and was influenced by Ginsberg’s poem. “Berkeley Song in F Major” first appeared in Journal for the Protection of All Beings, co-published with The Co-Evolution Quarterly, No, 19, Fall 1978, pp. 11 - 12; and was subsequently collected in Pomes All Sizes by Jack Kerouac, (San Francisco: City Lights, 1992) pp. 81 - 86.