According to Michael Meyer1 poetry in fixed verse “can be compared to the regular figures of classical ballet, free verse to the variable movements of modern dance, whose patterns are very flexible but nevertheless follow a choreography”.
In the following I would like to take a look at Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” analyzing its “variable movements” in order to get an idea of the “choreography” it is based on.
Starting off with the headline, we can gather that the following lines will be dealing with(in) an American supermarket. In the first paragraph [I rather speak of a paragraph than of a stanza, because it’s free verse here] we learn that the speaker adresses Walt Whitman, recalling the past when he was walking down an alley, looking at the moon, dreaming and thinking. Whith this a melancholic and ‘poetic’ tone is introduced which persists throughout the whole poem. The rhythm of these first lines is characterized on the one hand by different sound patterns and choice of words (e.g. assonances based on o-vowels or ee-vowels such as in “sidestreets” and “trees”), on the other hand by their syntax whose sound resembles a treadmill )so that we get the feeling of walking on and on). The irregular sequences of different types of clauses throughout the whole poem is quite striking: For instance we find the phenomenon of ‘treadmill sentences’ in between short, more or less disjointed exclamations or questions and finally at the end when the lyrical I is asking a long question. That ‘treadmill-frame’ corresponds to the content of the whole poem as far as the lyrical I’s thoughts about the way things are (and will be), its reflections on itself (and on Whitman) and his questions about life in past and future are concerned.
In the next paragraph the lyrical I takes us inside a “neon fruit supermarket” - a bizarre place where people are “shopping for images” [the same way as readers read and thus consume ‘pictures’ by reading this poem]. Divided by colons, the actions of people and the setting presented appear disjointed, clinical. Here, in order to make us remember these lines: “Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes” Ginsberg uses assonances, consonnaces and internal rhyme. Furthermore he varies the sound patterns, e.g. by using alliterations such as in “penumbras” – “peaches”.
Here it becomes clear that the poem’s rhythm is not caused by metre but by the repetition of syntactical elements and above all by a variety of pictures. Regarding the bizarre juxtapositions in the fruit department of a surreal supermarket we feel at least as absurd as the lyrical I itself: Each member of those “whole families shopping” is associated to a different kind of fruit. In addition to that the famous Spanish writer Federico Garcìa Lorca on his shopping tour is associated to the juciest and biggest of these fruits, the watermelon. He doesn’t seem to belong to those families, since he (after a dash – caesura) is asked by the lyrical I: “and you, García Lorca what were you doing down by the watermelons?”. Seen from an intertextual perspective, Ginsberg mentioned Garcìa Lorca here, because he adored him and his nonrealistic writing. Garcìa Lorca himself worked a lot with ‘fruit’ symbols in his poems that deal for a major part with individuality and vanity. Moreover, like Whitman and Ginsberg Garcìa Lorca was a “societal outsider”, because he was gay. Renouncing a further interpretation of those fruits’ figurative meanings, the surrealistic scene in the supermarket should be taken as an allegory of a ‘clinical’ paradise – a place originally made for the humans, now alienating, sterile, isolating.
In the third part of the poem the lyrical I again adresses Walt Whitman [‘introducer’ of free verse into American poetry] whom Ginsberg adored very much, so that it is not surprising that he even worships him with this poem. Ginsberg juxtaposes the “childless” Whitman to the ‘straight’ families of the preceding paragraph (corresponding with the juxtaposition with Garcìa Lorca). Then the lyrical I recalls the “odyssey in the supermarket” which they both seem to have experienced. The way Whitman is adressed here is quite striking, since the lyrical I talks to him like to an intimate friend (“old grabber”) and lateron he even speaks of “we”. So they are ‘two of a kind’. Thus, the lyrical I describes Whitman asking the grocery boys banal absurd questions (e.g. “Who killed the pork chops?”) while flirting with them. The figurative expression “poking among the meats” is worth being discussed: Whereas “meat” in general stands for sin, vanity and lust, in this context it has a (homo-)erotic meaning. Combined with “poking” and “grabber” it corresponds to actions like ‘showing’, ‘provoking’, ‘teasing’ or ‘penetrating’. With this we cannot only speak of This point becomes clearer when we take a look at the lyrical I following Whitman through the market imagining himself being followed by the store detective. Here we get another hint for ‘gay aesthetic’ of the text since this a stereotype ‘gay fantasy’. Moreover, both Whitman and the lyrical I tasted ‘forbidden’ fruit, the “artichokes” – another symbol for erotic pleasure: And they shared it!
They went on and on then, going nowhere and everywhere without any regrets (“never passing the cashier”) and once again the speaker adresses Whitman asking him where to go as time is running out ( the tone of ‘vanity’ is present here). It is quite striking here, that from this passage on the lyrical I speaks in future tense when talking to Whitman, whereas at the beginning he uses present and in the middle part past tense. So we can assume that the speaker is asking his friend Whitman for a vision of how one should live or, more likely what life in America should be like.- They both are dreaming of “the lost America of love”, which is quite a negative image of the world they live(d) in. Thus, a strong feeling of alienation is expressed within these lines. Then, presented as a metatext ( text in parenthesis) we get a statement maintaining the special relation between the lyrical I and Whitman: “I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.” The term “absurd” here shows us roughly the speaker’s attitude towards the issue discussed (“odyssey in the supermarket”) that itself is closely related to modern life. In the next passage the lyrical I visualizes a dark, gloomy future and concludes pessimistically: “we’ll both be lonely”.In addition to that we here get an idea of how strong the speaker is addicted to Whitman and (his) poetry and its craft of imagination.
At the beginning of the poem the lyrical I is “self-conscious[ly] looking at the full moon.” and at the end of it we are told the reason of it: Whitman is regarded as “dear father”, “greybeard” (which stands for wisdom as well as for excentricism) and “lonely old courage teacher”. Whitman is worshipped here as an idol and in order to intensify the speakers thoughts towards him the style of the language is visibly changed in this part, as Ginsberg uses elements from Greek mythology (speaking in the past!). With this we get the mourning and solemn tone of an ode (even though the poem renounces fixed verse) when Walt Whitman and his image of America svanish in Hades.
1 Michael Meyer : English and American Literatures. A. Francke Verlag Tübingen und Basel 2004, 42.