“Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?” – Allen GinsbergTweet
In her tribute to one of America’s foundational poets, Mary Oliver wrote in an essay about her shadow-companion and first poetic love: ‘I learned from Whitman that the poem is a temple—or a green field—a place to enter, and in which to feel.’ Allen Ginsberg’s homage to Walt Whitman (‘dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher’) is a more colorful, visionary encounter, in a supermarket in Berkeley at night, where Ginsberg and the ghost of Whitman goof around the produce in a state of crazed, almost ecstatic inspiration and loneliness. Whitman’s legacy to Ginsberg’s style of beat poetry was the form of the long lines that lingered over the page freely, a style that Ginsberg went on to use and refine through his career.
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 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?
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
From: Collected Poems 1947-1997