Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) is perhaps the most famous of the Beat poets.
“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
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
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
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?
In this poem, Ginsberg considers Whitman’s legacy – and himself, as another gay poet, the inheritor. Its wild toggling between the “peaches and penumbras,” the “neon fruit” or “shopping for images” to the more transcendental “Are you my Angel?” locates a cultural contrast nascent in Whitman that is only clearer a century later (the poem is written at the centennial of “Song of Myself’). At the end, Ginsberg points to the fact that America always looks back nostalgically to an imaginary lost time, ever receding and never extant at all.
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over
I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.
Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals
an unpublishable private literature that goes 1400 miles and hour and
twentyfivethousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underpriviliged who live in
my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.
America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his
automobiles more so they’re all different sexes
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they
sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the
speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the
workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party
was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother
Bloor made me cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have
been a spy.
America you don’re really want to go to war.
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him makes Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.
This heteroglossic poem is one of my favorites by Ginsberg because when you hear recordings of him reading it in Berkeley, you can tell that it was meant to be humorous – he and the audience are laughing. Its notation of the time and amount of money he has look ahead to Frank O’Hara’s cataloguing, and his lists look back to Whitman’s.
The poem is introduced by William Carlos Williams (“Hold back the edges of your gowns, ladies, we are going through hell), who befriended Ginsberg in New Jersey after the younger poet left the mental hospital. Howl traces a course of American poetry of identity from Whitman into the 20th century, touching on the Inferno and Frost’s “Fire and Ice” as well. “The spontaneity of surface in Howl conceals but grows out of Ginsberg’s care and self-consciousness about rhythm and meter.” The first few lines actively set up over 10 pages of predicate clauses beginning with “who”:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up…
Part II turns more Yeatsian: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” proceeding to posit answers beginning with “Moloch…” Part III is the famous “I’m with you in Rockland” section to Carl Solomon, which ends:
I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night.
The footnote is a cry for sacredness in its ironic repetition of “Holy!”
Written after his mother died in 1956, Kaddish is a moving exploration of the relationship of one’s personal and family memories. The speaker remembers his mother, Naomi (a leftist/Communist who was often in and out of mental hospitals), but also weaves her memories that he has inherited from her into the work:
Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment—the flower burning in the Day—and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—escaped back to Oblivion—
The poem is filled with love, but also with horrifying images of madness, loneliness, anger, and violent sexuality. It is written in a mix of Whitmanian, surrealist, and stream-of-consciousness styles. Part of the anxiety of the poem is the internalization of his mother’s madness, as well as a feeling of guilt, since he could not amass the necessary number of men to properly make a minion to say Kaddish over her body. In this sense, his voice strains to “contain multitudes,” as Whitman’s speaker also claims. Much of the imagery seems miscegenous, from the “crown of thorns” outside of Judaism to the mix of metaphors and styles the speaker uses in straining to talk about his mother. Even the crows that caw are sad copies of the cries that end Eliot’s The Waste Land, scavengers like the birds in Yeats come to feed on the available carrion. Like O’Hara’s more lighthearted poems, it begins with the strange thought of being out on the street and thinking of his dead mother, now gone:
Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph
Mixing tradition and mourning via pop culture, the poet expresses a desire for death himself:
And you’re out, Death let you out, Death had the Mercy, you’re done with your century, done with God, done with the path thru it—Done with yourself at last—Pure—Back to the Babe dark before your Father, before us all—before the world—
The poet turns back to memories of caring for his paranoid, ill mother:
By long nites as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your nervousness—you were fat—your next move—
By that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you—once and for all—when I vowed forever that once man disagreed with my opinion of the cosmos, I was lost-
By my later burden—vow to illuminate mankind—this is release of particulars—(mad as you)—(sanity a trick of agreement)—
But you stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner, and spied a mystical assassin from Newark…
… The enemies approach—what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhdanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store? Uncle Sam in Newark, plotting deathly perfumes in the Negro district? Uncle Ephraim, drunk with murder in the politician’s bar, scheming of Hague? Aunt Rose passing water thru the needles of the Spanish Civil War?
There is something fearful in the fact that her paranoia, as the witch hunts of the 50s demonstrate, was somewhat justified. Her diminishing, ‘irradiated’ body registers the Cold War as manifest phenomenon, diminishing almost by half-life. Repeatedly, the speaker attempts to confront the horror of his own mother’s body (perhaps a stand-in for the ravaged dreams of the old Left in America), now gone:
Naomi, Naomi—sweating, bulge-eyed, fat, the dress unbuttoned at one side—hair over brow, her stocking hanging evilly on her legs—screaming for a blood transfusion—one righteous hand upraised—a shoe in it—barefoot in the Pharmacy
Picking her tooth with her nail, lips formed an O, suspicion—thought’s old worn vagina—absent sideglance of eye—some evil debt written in the wall, unpaid—& the aged breasts of Newark come near—
May have heard radio gossip thru the wires in her head, controlled by 3 big sticks left in her back by gangsters in amnesia, thru the hospital—caused pain between her shoulders—
One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her—flirting to herself at sink—lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers—ragged long lips between her legs—What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold—later revolted a little, not much—seemed perhaps a good idea to try—know the Monster of the Beginning Womb—Perhaps—that way. Would she care? She needs a lover.
As his mother begins to die, the speaker turns back to her days of youth in his imagination:
O Russian faced, woman on the grass, your long black hair is crowned with flowers, the mandolin is on your knees—
Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised happiness at hand—
blessed daughter come to America, I long to hear your voice again, remembering your mother’s music, in the Song of the Natural Front—
O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision—
Tortured and beaten in the skull—What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry—and for all humankind call on the Origin
O beautiful Garbo of my Karma—all photographs from 1920 in Camp Nicht-Gedeiget here unchanged—with all the teachers from Vewark—Nor Elanor be gone, nor Max await his specter—nor Louis retire from this High School—
At her death, Kurtzlike, she yells out “All the Horror!” The poem’s mystical, bizarre ending picks up many of the references from earlier stanzas (keys, bars, sunlight), seemingly reclaiming the visionary status of the poet for the modern era:
2 days after her death I got her letter—
Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote—‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window—I have the key—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
which is Naomi—
The key that unlocks the beginning of the poem is death itself. The last line plays on the adjectival meaning of Naomi – “beautiful or delightful” (in the Bible, the mother in law of Ruth who lost both her sons and her husband), turning over some of the horror of the memories with an act of love. The “roar of memory” at the end of the poem comes back as a vast highschool, representing America’s institutional wasteland and yet its unbounded possibilities as well.