Shopping for Images

Allen Ginsberg. Photo credit: Elsa Dorfman

 
 

A Supermarket in California is a poem by American poet Allen Ginsberg first published in Howl and Other Poems in 1956. In the poem, the narrator imagines visiting a supermarket in California where he finds Federico García Lorca and Walt Whitman shopping

 
 

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, 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?

 
 

Ginsberg as portrayed by Richard Avedon

 
 

A Supermarket in California is both an ode to Ginsberg’s poetic hero and major influence, Walt Whitman, as well as an early experimentation with many of the themes that would dominate his work throughout his career. Whitman, who is considered to be America’s first original poet, was an early influence on Ginsberg’s writing. Whitman, a nineteenth century poet, experimented with meter and rhythm and eschewed the structured line and stanza which was the standard form for poetry of his time.

 
 

 
 

Whitman became known as an eccentric, both for his style of writing as well as his lifestyle. Whitman himself was greatly influenced by the Romantic poets and much of his poetry deals with nature and the encroachment of industrialized society on all that is natural and, in Whitman’s thought, good about America. Additionally, Whitman’s poems often glorified a sexually expressive mode of being, using veiled references to promote both a spiritual and sexual freedom. Like Howl, Whitman’s early poetry, including his most famous work, Leaves of Grass was considered pornographic and obscene by nineteenth century standards. Whitman himself is believed to have been homosexual or bisexual, though those assertions are sometimes challenged by modern Whitman scholarship.

Ginsberg sought to continue Whitman’s legacy stylistically and thematically. Ginsberg’s long line was inspired by Whitman’s use of varying lengths of line and breath. Thematically, Ginsberg sought to continue Whitman’s poetic assault upon industrialized society by writing about the consequences of corporate and industrial growth that Whitman could only foresee in his own work. A Supermarket in California, with its depictions of domesticated life symbolized by food placed out of its natural context, deals with such themes. Additionally, A Supermarket… also alludes to a hidden sexualized world, veiled in the language of commonplace things.

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Seasons and Rhythms of Love

Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg at Dorfman’s house

 
 

“Relationships must have seasons and rhythms; constancy isn’t necessarily the key. By taking pictures in my house, I get a sense of how things change every day. How my relationships change, the rhythms, who comes in, who hasn’t come, who’s busy, how busy I am, what I feel like tacking on the wall, what I feel like throwing away. How I feel with that chair in the corner, the trunk in the middle room. I have always had the feeling that everything is going to last forever; nothing is ever going to change. We’ll never get any older and we’re always going to be friends. I can take the picture today or tomorrow or in a week. It will be there.”

Elsa Dorfman

 
 

Elsa and her husband, Harvey

 
 

 

Couples series

Photographing Poetry

Elsa Dorfman’s Influences:

Richard Avedon, an absolute genius. Mary Ellen Mark. Bill Cunningham, another genius whose work looks sooo simple and it surely isn’t. See him in every Sunday in New York Times style section. Photojournalists. Diane Arbus of course, Sanders, Lee Friedlander, a real hero of mine. He keeps on going. I adore photography books and looking at images on the web. I go to galleries as much as I can, considering my hermit tendencies. I look at everyone’s portraits. I also like architectural photographs. Of course I think they are portraits… just of buildings not persons.”

 
 

Elsa Dorfman and the Giant Polaroid Camera

 
 

“I picked up a camera, a Hasselblad, on my job as an assistant science teacher in 1964.  I was taught by a wonderful gifted teacher George Cope who had worked with Berenice Abbott. So there was some romance and a science of history in the air.

“Photo” offered me a path to the world. I was 27 and till then cdnt figure out what I would do, how I would live, who I would be friends w. I was very soulful and very confused. Typical for that time in history. I was ambitious. But ambitious about WHAT? I learned that I had great curiosity. That I had a sense of narrative.  That I had empathy. And that I liked a certain amount of adventure.”

 
 

Self-portrait

 
 

Jorge Luis Borges

 
 

Borges photographed by Diane Arbus and Richard Avedon respectively

 
 

Bob Creely

 
 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

 
 

Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso

 
 

“Allen and Peter, who I knew better than I knew Gregory, always made me feel I could do things, that I could / should try things. In the early sixties in the US women didn’t have much opportunity and they didn’t believe in themselves. I know that is a trite expression.  Anyhow, I was very conventional, or at least I felt I should be conventional. And they made me feel I was OK and could be the way I felt like being, whatever that was. So I tried things. And the camera was what I stuck with.  But I do love to write.”

 
 

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky

 
 

Ginsberg and Orlovsky by Richard Avedon

 
 

“I started using the polaroid 20×24 on feb.8, 1980. The studio was in an old building at 20 Ames Street in Cambridge. The bldg is now the site of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology art museum. I visited the studio the day before to see what the set up was and to get a sense of the camera. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were visiting me and Polaroid allowed me a free session on the camera in exchange for my giving them a few original prints. I was allotted ten shots and I went over the allotted number because I got so caught up in the excitement of the camera. As Allen and Peter and I were leaving for the studio I grabbed a red amaryllis that my husband had bought me and brought it with us for the session. I had no idea how I would use the amaryllis. Here are three images from the session.”

 
 

Dorfman met Ginsberg in 1959, when she was a secretary for his publisher, Grove Press.  He “never doubted he would be a great man,” she recalls. “And he had the feeling that all his friends were equally genius.”

 
 

Ginsberg and Bob Dylan

 
 

“He (Dylan) asked me if I knew where Poe was born in Boston, and I didn’t. He had an idea where it was and wanted to go there. Amazingly right now, fifty years later or so, Boston is putting up a statue at Poe’s birthplace. Also, the security guards had taken my camera. But when Allen and I told Bob that I would love to take a picture of them together but I didn’t have my camera, Bob asked his security guy to get my camera!  I have Bob to thank for that picture.  And I gave Bob a copy of the Housebook.”

 
 

Bod Dylan

 
 

Anne Sexton