Allen poetry. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman has

Allen Ginsberg draws upon and
modifies 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 America
and gives examples on how he views America. Whitman had a very idealistic view
of America in “Song of Myself.” He felt as if America was a concept to strive
for.

            Walt
Whitman, arguably America’s most influential and innovative poet, was born into
a working class family in West Hills, New York, a village near Hempstead, Long
Island, on May 31, 1819, just thirty years after George Washington was
inaugurated as the first president of the newly formed United States.1
Being an American citizen was very influential in Whitman’s poetry. In “Song of
Myself,” Whitman has a clear vision for America which was that it was not a clear-cut
country. That it was something that the American people could come together and
strive for.

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            Although
a 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 stage
for generations to come breaking way from the strict Victorian poetic tradition
by writing in free verse. Ginsberg follows his footsteps, when composing
“Howl” by writing in long prose like lines and subdividing the poem into
several parts. Likewise, he uses numerous repetitions to achieve rhythmicity of
his verse. Ginsberg’s poem is heavily influenced by Whitman’s philosophy. The
works “Song of myself,” “America” and “A Supermarket in America” are
similar in ideas, structure and underling themes. The two authors challenge old
traditions and stand against conformity. They strongly identify with their
generation and dwell on themes such as religion and sexuality.  
            In “Song of Myself,” Whitman
identifies with the people that surround him. While admitting that his
generation is wasting its potential he puts a heavy stress on the sense of
belonging. He is not distancing himself from them but rather tries to connect
to his fellow citizens. He cares about the members of the American society.
            Ginsberg and Whitman set to explore
the role of the individual’s relationship with the rest of the world and the
nature of individuality. They emphasize how the society might influence one’s
perception and ideas but reveal that ultimately it is up to the individual to
choose in what to believe. The ideas shared between the two poets are centred
on the desire for a more personal connection with their fellow country
man and the world around them. They also touch upon themes such as sexuality
and religion as to make their readers more receptive to discussing them. They
question the moral values of American society, religion and the journey of the
soul and urge for much needed change. 
            The contents of the poem “America,” focuses
on what America is doing to itself and its people through the decisions that it
makes. Ginsberg speaks the mind of Americans who were at the time isolated from
the mainstream society. He expresses the collective fear of the imminent threat
of nuclear war. He also elaborates on the feeling that the entire country was
run by the media, “Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time
Magazine?/ I’m obsessed by Time Magazine./ I read it every week./”2
(137).
            Ginsberg found his inspiration for
both his poem’s content and its style in the writings of Walt Whitman. “So
these poems are a series of experiments with the formal organization of the
long line… I realized at the time that Whitman’s form had rarely been further
explored…”2 (636). Therefore Allen Ginsberg went on to
attempt this form that so inspired him and it is of no coincidence that
Ginsberg’s style is often analogous with Whitman’s.
            Ginsberg agreed with Whitman on many
levels, but especially with his focus on equality and the potential of the
individual. Like Whitman, Allen Ginsberg valued democracy and its perpetuation.
His work grew out of the notion that the thoughts and experiences of the
individual resonated among the masses, “It occurs to me that I am
America”2 (137). After that line in the poem, Ginsberg’s tone
shifts temporarily into that of America, “Asia is rising against me…I’d
better consider my national resources…I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions
of underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light of five hundred
suns.”2 (137). He places so much emphasis on being the voice of
America, that for awhile in this poem, he becomes America. This idea reflects
Ginsberg’s belief that prose is personal and that it comes directly from the
writer’s own person. Ginsberg’s feelings toward America in his personal life
come through in his poem as he transforms himself into America.
            Allen
Ginsberg personifies America in the poem and this is obvious to the reader in
the way the narrator either speaks to or about America. The reader must
acknowledge that America can be seen as the country, the place in which people
live, but also America can be viewed as a living being, because it is comprised
of them. Here, however, Ginsberg seems to portray a living body with one voice
and one mind. The voice being that of the masses and the mind being controlled
by the media, Ginsberg’s role in the poem is to speak up for those who are
unheard and to get away from the media dominated “mind” of America.
            Allen
Ginsberg’s “America” was certainly very different from Walt Whitman’s
“America”, but not only in a literary sense. As America shifted
further and further from the nation that Whitman knew, even greater was the
need for the writer or speaker to represent the unheard, oppressed, and the
masses. Allen Ginsberg, a true descendent of Whitman, did represent those
individuals and allowed their voice to be heard in his poem, a postmodern
American masterpiece, “America”.

            In
Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California,” he criticizes America during the
midst of the twentieth century in which society had acquired an attitude that
heavily valued the materialistic aspects of life. In order to efficiently
express the speaker’s discontent with society, he paints images by using vivid
detail throughout the entire poem to allow the reader to experience what the
speaker experiences himself. He begins by describing the setting on the streets
of California, “I walked down the sidestreets under the trees…/… looking at the
full moon”2 (2-3) and had thoughts of Walt Whitman, a nineteenth
century poet whom Ginsberg deeply admired. The setting is essential as it
describes the two worlds in which the speaker lives in; one represented by the
metropolitan landscape of downtown California and another represented by
nature, which the speaker longs to be a part of. The speaker describes himself
as a lost soul in search of satisfaction in conventional America, a place where
he 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 which
Walt 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 place
of wealth and choice.
            The speaker is unhappy with the idea
that American consumerism has taken priority over many things and has made
society forget about significant aspects of life. The speaker also states,
“Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love / past blue automobiles in
driveways…”2 (28-29) which refers to newly formed suburbs in which
every house and automobile is identical. Along with individuality, the value of
real human interactions is lost as well.

            During
a period where very few spoke of homosexuality and it was highly looked down
upon, “A Supermarket in California”, openly supports sexuality as it has many
subtle references throughout the poem. The speaker’s imaginative encounter with
Walt Whitman begins when he says, “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely
old grubber, / poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the
grocery / boys”2 (10-12). The speaker uses the phrase “poking among
the meats”2 (11) as an allusion to male intercourse. Along with
this, the speaker acknowledges Whitman’s liking towards young boys as he
describes Whitman eyeing those that work there. The speaker continues to speak
of 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 a
sense, is a reference to some sort of primitive sexuality.
            It is evident that through the entire
poem, the speaker is hoping for change in modern America as he holds different
beliefs from those conforming to society. This in turn, causes the speaker to
wish he lived during Walt Whitman’s time in which people valued nature, the
individuality of mankind, and real human interactions. Allen Ginsberg’s “A
Supermarket in California” paints a vivid scene in the minds of readers and
uses allusions and symbols in order to express the wrongs of society such as
consumerism and negative views of homosexuality.

1 Kenneth M. Price and Ed Folsom.
About Walt Whitman.  The Walt Whitman Archive, 1998. Accessed 10
Dec. 2017.

 

2
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl, and Other Poems. San Francisco:
City Lights Books, 1956. Print

 

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