Whitmanian Tangentials – Ginsberg

It should come as no surprise that the great Neo-Romantic & Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, declared his lineage to Whitman in his poem A Supermarket in California, a strongly imaginative ode to the great American bard. In this poem, Ginsberg not only address Whitman directly, but also plays off his catalogues of images or “enumerations”, as he has it, which are one of Whitman’s trademarks. This, we will see, is not uncommon among the Whitmanian tangentials we’ll be looking at here. For example, Pessoa, in the guise of the “engineer & sensationalist poet”, Álvaro de Campos, hyperbolizes Whitman’s catalogues almost to the point of parody. As one critic has put it, “Whitman is an everythingist”. Accordingly, to write like Whitman or even to write to him, one must be as all-encompassing as he was.

Allen Ginsberg

However, Ginsberg, being the post-industrial poet, the vituperator of greed & self-interest & capitalism– of the America that Whitman disdained in Democratic Vistas –does not merely walk the same banks as the Civil War nurse in a kind of homage; he desires the America that Whitman had (before the Vistas), & this impossibility is one of the key factors that underlie the poem’s sad & desperate ending, where Charon, the ferryman of Hades at the hand of Virgil –leaves the modern Ginsberg on the shores of Lethe, which is to say, on the other side of the River of Oblivion. From here, Ginsberg’s enterprise is one of recovering the “lost America” which he finds in Whitman.

Ginsberg’s treatment of Whitman, here, surpasses that of mere allusion. Whitman, for Ginsberg represents all that poetry can be in the Americas, &, at the same, all that is is not, which again, leads to the ultimate desperation. Also noteworthy in this poem is Lorca’s humorous cameo. The Spanish poet has somehow wandered into the grocery-store– a perfect setting for this homo-erotic escapade –& watches the two lovers like a hungry voyeur. It will be interesting to compare this text to Lorca’s Oda a Walt Whitman, which we shall consider in due time. For now, the poem:

A Supermarket in California

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!
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?

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?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store detective.
We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in
an hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be lonely.

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
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?

Berkeley, 1955

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