Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday's Poetry: "A Supermarket in California"

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

Last night I viewed the movie (for a second time) Kill Your Darlings, a story set at Columbia University in New York City during World War II and involving the forming of an alliance of young writers and poets who came to be known as "the beats."  The story is told, more or less, from the point of view of Allen Ginsberg as he begins classes at Columbia.  Among the friends that he makes at that prestigious school are Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and a very gifted and rebellious student by the name of Lucien Carr.

The crux of the story involves a sexual predator named David Kammerer who had followed Lucien Carr to several schools and who, according to the movie, wrote many of Carr's class assignments.  Carr killed Kammerer in what he described as a homosexual assault by Kammerer in the winter of 1944.  He stabbed his stalker several times with a pocket knife and then bound his hands and feet, stuffed his coat pockets with rocks, and pulled Kammerer into the Hudson River and watched him drown.  The young man ultimately served two years on a manslaughter charge for what he described as an "honor killing," and he went on to become a respected editor with United Press International.

Allen Ginsberg, portrayed in the movie by Daniel Radcliffe, quickly made a name for himself at Columbia by challenging one of his professors on poetic style.  The professor was hammering away at the structure of good poetry - rhyme scheme, meter, and stanza - when Ginsberg interjected that Walt Whitman wrote exceptional poetry without concentrating on those limitations.  His observation lead him and Carr to begin the formation of a writer's group with a "new vision," one that would ultimately become "the beats."

Ginsberg's poem, A Supermarket in California, avoids structured lines and stanzas while experimenting with rhyme and meter.  In the poem he pays homage to his mentor from the century before, Walt Whitman, and creates an interesting view of his contemporary time with Whitman participating and observing.

A Supermarket in California
by Allen Ginsberg

   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? 

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