Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Ginsberg, Whitman, Banned Poetry and a Supermarket in California

A supermarket in California.

Two of the more famous examples of banned poetry in America are of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. Whitman's Leaves of Grass was banned in 1855 for it's homoerotic overtones. Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was cited for obscenity upon it's publication in 1955. It was deemed not to be obscene in a court of law two years later.

On the heels of Banned Book Week it is worth remembering that other poets and their poetry have also been the subject of bans and censorship. Notable poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Shel Silverstein have also felt the ire of government intrusion into their poetry. And banned poetry is not isolated to America either.

The Canadian poet, Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept was banned in her home country following it's publication in 1945. Ostensibly, the ban was due to it's sexual documentation of her affair with the married English poet, George Barker. The ban stayed in effect until 1975. Thirty years.

In Europe, Prvoslav Vujcic's Thoughts of a Corpse was banned in Yugoslavia by court order in 1983. Following the Cultural Revolution in China, the Misty Poets were denounced and banned by the Maoist government.

As for Ginsberg and Whitman, it is curious to note that one of the passages in Howl is a piece that ties the two poets together — A Supermarket in California.


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, García 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 a 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


Bound as one in censorship, Walt Whitman was an inspiration and idol to a young Allen Ginsberg. Other than the titular Howl, A Supermarket in California is regarded as the most significant of the "other poems."

Ginsberg's dreamlike encounter with his idol in a supermarket also pays tribute to Federico García Lorca who wrote his own tribute to Whitman — Ode to Walt Whitman.