G is for Ginsberg, Allen (1926-1997), Beat Poet, Lost in a California Supermarket


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Ginsberg was an important twentieth-century poet, and maybe, together with  Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, one of the most dynamic voices within the counter culture Beats (see my entry on the Beats) who were headquartered in San Francisco. Ginsberg’s first book of poetry Howl and Other Poems (1956) was controversial and declared obscene but was, as that often happens with obscene books, immediately sold out.

In the next, famous and classical poem, Ginsberg summons his literary father and muse, Walt Whitman, and asks him to what extent America has changed. Capitalism, mass production as epitomized by the California supermarket, is a setting of plenty but also one of alienation, filled with wandering people (I wanted to write zombies…) who no longer have contact with each other.  This alienation is reinforced by the notion that people don’t know anymore where their food is coming from (Ginsberg is a clear precursor here of Michael Pollen and Alice Waters!), deepening the disconnect with nature and themselves. The ode to Whitman thus becomes an elegy of what has been lost in the post-industrial world, and, is, as such, an omen of things to come and the world we live in today.

As I seem to have quite a few Dutch readers, I translated the following poem into Dutch, which you can find below the English version.

A Supermarket in California

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the side streets 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 boys.
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 detective.
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
lonely.

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?

Berkeley, 1955

Een supermarkt in Californië

Ik moet vanavond zoveel aan je denken, Walt Whitman, terwijl
ik de zijstraten afliep onder de bomen, met hoofdpijn
zelfbewust starend naar de volle maan.
In mijn hongerige vermoeidheid op zoek naar beelden, ging ik
de neonfruitige supermarkt binnen terwijl ik droomde van je opsommingen!
Wat een perziken en wat een schimmen! Hele gezinnen
die ‘s avonds winkelden. Gangpaden vol met echtgenotes! Vrouwen in de
avocado’s, baby’s in de tomaten– en jij Garcia Lorca
wat deed jij daar bij de watermeloenen?

Ik zag je, Walt Whitman, kinderloos, eenzame oude rakker
snuffelend tussen het vlees in de vriesvakken terwijl je de winkeljongens bespiedde.
Ik hoorde hoe je vragen aan ze stelde: wie heeft
de karbonades van kant gemaakt? Wat kosten de bananen? Ben jij mijn Engel?
Ik dwaalde langs de eindeloos glimmende opgestapelde blikjes
jou volgend, en in mijn verbeelding gevolgd door de winkeldetective.
We liepen de open gangpaden samen af en in onze
eenzame fantasie proefden we de artisjokken
en namen we bezit van elke diepvrieslekkernij
zonder ooit te betalen.

Waar gaan we naar toe Walt Whitman? De deuren gaan
over een uur dicht. In welke richting wijst je baard vanavond?
(Ik raak je boek aan en droom van onze odyssee
in de supermarkt en ik voel me absurd).
Zullen we de hele nacht door verlaten straten wandelen? De
bomen, een schakering van schaduwen, de lichten uit
in de huizen, en eenzaamheid ons lot.

Zullen we slenteren en dromen over het verloren
Amerika van de liefde
langs blauwe auto’s op autopaden, het thuis van ons eenzame huisje?
Ach lieve vader, grijsbaard, eenzame onderwijzer met lef van weleer
Hoe zag jouw Amerika eruit toen Charon ophield met het voortduwen van zijn veerboot
toen jij uitstapte aan een wal die wazemde
en de boot nakeek terwijl hij verdween
op de zwarte wateren van de Lethe?

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