Presented much like a spontaneous journal or diary entry, Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" is a complex and multifaceted poem that stands as an indictment against American government and culture. The opening lines of the poem forward the aforementioned journal-like quality and also present the central focal point of tension in the poem as a whole. The opening line specifically expresses a tone of wistfulness or even sadness: "What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman" (Ginsberg, 1). The evocation of Whitman's name is an obvious symbol of optimism or even idealism. Due to the wide-ranging nature of Whitman's own writings, the sense of idealization is meant to extend to philosophy and politics as well as poetry.
The opening line sets up the poem's central tension by contrasting idealization with cynical reality. The tone is established even before the first lien due to the brilliant title which evokes both the optimistic westward expansion of America's history (California) and the practical demand of the American political and cultural systems to adequately provide for the American people (Supermarket). It is important to recognize, that throughout the poem, Ginsberg intends the symbolic nature of the poem's setting of a supermarket to stand for much more than physical food.
A close inspection of the poem indicates that Ginsberg meant that the promise of America, as envisioned by Whitman included moral, psychic, and spiritual "food" as well. Therefore, the specific word "supermarket" must be understood as ironic in nature. This assertion is confirmed early in the poem. The speaker of the poem imagines he see Whitman himself in the supermarket: "I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, /poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery/ boys." (Ginsberg, 10-12). The irony of the scene becomes clear: an idealized vision of Whitman contrasted with the urban reality of a lonely supermarket.
The motifs of loneliness and hunger are closely aligned in the poem. This close connection between the sense of isolation and the sense of hunger is meant to reinforce the notion of emotional, psychic, and spiritual nourishment. The second stanza of the poem begins: "In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images" (Ginsberg, 4) which indicates another layer of irony in the poem. That irony is the fact that the speaker of the poem is aware of his loneliness and "malnourished" emotional and psychic states. He enters the supermarket to find spiritual nourishment. What he finds instead is, of course, merely meat and produce and a vision of Whitman who appears to be just as lost and lonely as the speaker of the poem himself.
The irony of the poem is where the tension of the poem begins and gains a degree of disturbing power. Although the poem is written in a prosaic fashion and is meant to sound like a quickly dashed-off journal entry, the actual resonance of the poem is quite deep. The shallow "false front" of the poem is also evocative of the poem's theme of loneliness and isolation. There is a layer of ordinariness and pedestrianism connected even to a "spiritual" vision of Walt Whitman in a grocery store. Beneath this irony lies the rather cynical idea that something about American culture as embodied in the "supermarket" is reducing the remarkable to the mundane. The following lines verify this idea: "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? (Ginsberg, 6-10). The exclamatory diction in these lines is contrasted with ironic effect with the vision of a well-ordered supermarket, with everything placed in convenient aisles.
The subtle idea in these lines is the connection, again, between the supermarket and spiritual food. In these lines, the theme becomes...