Allen Ginsberg draws upon andmodifies Walt Whitman’s vision of America he expressed in “Song of Myself.” In “America”and “A Supermarket in California” he contradicts what Whitman saw in Americaand gives examples on how he views America.
Whitman had a very idealistic viewof America in “Song of Myself.” He felt as if America was a concept to strivefor. WaltWhitman, arguably America’s most influential and innovative poet, was born intoa working class family in West Hills, New York, a village near Hempstead, LongIsland, on May 31, 1819, just thirty years after George Washington wasinaugurated as the first president of the newly formed United States.1Being an American citizen was very influential in Whitman’s poetry. In “Song ofMyself,” Whitman has a clear vision for America which was that it was not a clear-cutcountry. That it was something that the American people could come together andstrive for.
Althougha century apart, Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman share similar cultural,political and moral values, which they express in their literary work.Whitman’s writing is considered controversial for the 1800’s. He sets the stagefor generations to come breaking way from the strict Victorian poetic traditionby writing in free verse. Ginsberg follows his footsteps, when composing”Howl” by writing in long prose like lines and subdividing the poem intoseveral parts. Likewise, he uses numerous repetitions to achieve rhythmicity ofhis verse. Ginsberg’s poem is heavily influenced by Whitman’s philosophy. Theworks “Song of myself,” “America” and “A Supermarket in America” aresimilar in ideas, structure and underling themes.
The two authors challenge oldtraditions and stand against conformity. They strongly identify with theirgeneration and dwell on themes such as religion and sexuality. In “Song of Myself,” Whitmanidentifies with the people that surround him. While admitting that hisgeneration is wasting its potential he puts a heavy stress on the sense ofbelonging. He is not distancing himself from them but rather tries to connectto his fellow citizens. He cares about the members of the American society. Ginsberg and Whitman set to explorethe role of the individual’s relationship with the rest of the world and thenature of individuality. They emphasize how the society might influence one’sperception and ideas but reveal that ultimately it is up to the individual tochoose in what to believe.
The ideas shared between the two poets are centredon the desire for a more personal connection with their fellow countryman and the world around them. They also touch upon themes such as sexualityand religion as to make their readers more receptive to discussing them. Theyquestion the moral values of American society, religion and the journey of thesoul and urge for much needed change. The contents of the poem “America,” focuseson what America is doing to itself and its people through the decisions that itmakes. Ginsberg speaks the mind of Americans who were at the time isolated fromthe mainstream society. He expresses the collective fear of the imminent threatof nuclear war. He also elaborates on the feeling that the entire country wasrun by the media, “Are you going to let your emotional life be run by TimeMagazine?/ I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
/ I read it every week./”2(137). Ginsberg found his inspiration forboth his poem’s content and its style in the writings of Walt Whitman.
“Sothese poems are a series of experiments with the formal organization of thelong line… I realized at the time that Whitman’s form had rarely been furtherexplored…”2 (636).
Therefore Allen Ginsberg went on toattempt this form that so inspired him and it is of no coincidence thatGinsberg’s style is often analogous with Whitman’s. Ginsberg agreed with Whitman on manylevels, but especially with his focus on equality and the potential of theindividual. Like Whitman, Allen Ginsberg valued democracy and its perpetuation.
His work grew out of the notion that the thoughts and experiences of theindividual resonated among the masses, “It occurs to me that I amAmerica”2 (137). After that line in the poem, Ginsberg’s toneshifts temporarily into that of America, “Asia is rising against me…I’dbetter consider my national resources…
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millionsof underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundredsuns.”2 (137). He places so much emphasis on being the voice ofAmerica, that for awhile in this poem, he becomes America. This idea reflectsGinsberg’s belief that prose is personal and that it comes directly from thewriter’s own person. Ginsberg’s feelings toward America in his personal lifecome through in his poem as he transforms himself into America. AllenGinsberg personifies America in the poem and this is obvious to the reader inthe way the narrator either speaks to or about America. The reader mustacknowledge that America can be seen as the country, the place in which peoplelive, but also America can be viewed as a living being, because it is comprisedof them. Here, however, Ginsberg seems to portray a living body with one voiceand one mind.
The voice being that of the masses and the mind being controlledby the media, Ginsberg’s role in the poem is to speak up for those who areunheard and to get away from the media dominated “mind” of America. AllenGinsberg’s “America” was certainly very different from Walt Whitman’s”America”, but not only in a literary sense. As America shiftedfurther and further from the nation that Whitman knew, even greater was theneed for the writer or speaker to represent the unheard, oppressed, and themasses.
Allen Ginsberg, a true descendent of Whitman, did represent thoseindividuals and allowed their voice to be heard in his poem, a postmodernAmerican masterpiece, “America”. InGinsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” he criticizes America during themidst of the twentieth century in which society had acquired an attitude thatheavily valued the materialistic aspects of life. In order to efficientlyexpress the speaker’s discontent with society, he paints images by using vividdetail throughout the entire poem to allow the reader to experience what thespeaker experiences himself. He begins by describing the setting on the streetsof California, “I walked down the sidestreets under the trees…/… looking at thefull moon”2 (2-3) and had thoughts of Walt Whitman, a nineteenthcentury poet whom Ginsberg deeply admired. The setting is essential as itdescribes the two worlds in which the speaker lives in; one represented by themetropolitan landscape of downtown California and another represented bynature, which the speaker longs to be a part of. The speaker describes himselfas a lost soul in search of satisfaction in conventional America, a place wherehe does not belong.
The speaker enters the “neon fruit supermarket”2(5) in hopes of finding beauty in items so natural and so raw, a world whichWalt Whitman lived in. By choosing a supermarket as the setting of the poem,the speaker alludes to American capitalism and consumerism as they are a placeof wealth and choice. The speaker is unhappy with the ideathat American consumerism has taken priority over many things and has madesociety forget about significant aspects of life. The speaker also states,”Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love / past blue automobiles indriveways…”2 (28-29) which refers to newly formed suburbs in whichevery house and automobile is identical. Along with individuality, the value ofreal human interactions is lost as well.
Duringa period where very few spoke of homosexuality and it was highly looked downupon, “A Supermarket in California”, openly supports sexuality as it has manysubtle references throughout the poem. The speaker’s imaginative encounter withWalt Whitman begins when he says, “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonelyold grubber, / poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing thegrocery / boys”2 (10-12). The speaker uses the phrase “poking amongthe meats”2 (11) as an allusion to male intercourse.
Along withthis, the speaker acknowledges Whitman’s liking towards young boys as hedescribes Whitman eyeing those that work there. The speaker continues to speakof Whitman’s homosexuality as he says, “I heard you asking question of each:…/… What price bananas? Are you my Angel?”2 (13-14), which in asense, is a reference to some sort of primitive sexuality. It is evident that through the entirepoem, the speaker is hoping for change in modern America as he holds differentbeliefs from those conforming to society.
This in turn, causes the speaker towish he lived during Walt Whitman’s time in which people valued nature, theindividuality of mankind, and real human interactions. Allen Ginsberg’s “ASupermarket in California” paints a vivid scene in the minds of readers anduses allusions and symbols in order to express the wrongs of society such asconsumerism and negative views of homosexuality.1 Kenneth M. Price and Ed Folsom.About Walt Whitman.
The Walt Whitman Archive, 1998. Accessed 10Dec. 2017. 2Ginsberg, Allen.
Howl, and Other Poems. San Francisco:City Lights Books, 1956. Print