Samples Poetry Analysis of “The Things They Carry” and “A Supermarket in California”

Analysis of “The Things They Carry” and “A Supermarket in California”

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Some of the best writing is done by writers who break expectations in order to make a point or to add a deeper level of meaning to their text. Allan Ginsberg and Tim O’Brien are two such writers. Both of them use the expectations people have about the genres of writing in which they work to make a point by not following those conventions. Two examples of this deliberate breaking of convention are “The Things They Carry” by O’Brien, and “A Supermarket in California” by Ginsberg. O’Brien’s short story and Ginsberg’s poem are both works which break the rules of the genre in which they are written in order to help the authors explore the difference between outer reality and inner consciousness.

Ginsberg’s poem tells of the narrator walking into the grocery store, in search of images, (Ginsberg, line 1) and thinking of Walt Whitman. There is a juxtaposition in the poem between what is real and what is happening in the mind of the narrator. He writes: “What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” (Line 3). This is the Real, concrete world around the narrator, and then, on the same line, “and you, García Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?” García Lorca was a poet who was killed in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. He is important to this poem, according to Ginsberg himself, because One thing that he was known for was surreal writing. Also, he, too, admired Walt Whitman. (García Lorca, Para 2). So, next to the babies in the tomatoes, the narrator sees a deceased poet. The real and the surreal co-exist side by side in this poem.

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The majority of Ginsberg’s poem is an imaginary meeting between him and Walt Whitman. Whitman himself seems to embody both the surreal and the real. The narrator says he can hear Whitman asking questions. “I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” (Ginsberg, Line 5). Here there is the very real and practical mention of the price of bananas right next to the lovely and fanciful mention of angels. Again, this is an example of the ordinary down-to-earth outer world matched with the extraordinary, inner vision of beauty. The theme continues as the narrator wonders what he and Whitman will do after their walk from the store. “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?” (Line 11). And yet, even as he dreams of this conversation, he is aware that it is a dream. “I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel absurd.)” (9). The narrator is simultaneously aware that he is dreaming, but relishing the dream and the opportunity it gives him to converse with someone he greatly admires.

The imaginary world and reality are both just as present in O’Brien’s story as they are in Ginsberg’s poem. The reality of a soldier’s loneliness is set against his imaginings of a loved one. Here, too, the protagonist knows the reality, that the letters he is reading are not love letters, but can’t help keeping them close anyway. “They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. (O’Brien, para 1). He is aware of the reality but willing to indulge in imagination. O’Brien notes that he would often “spend his last hour of light pretending.” One of the things he pretended was that his lady love was a virgin. The sentence “She was a virgin, he was almost sure” is countered at the end of the passage with the thought that the Lieutenant would lie awake “and wonder if Martha was a virgin.” This is perhaps the story’s sharpest example of the contrast between the Lieutenant’s imaginary love and the reality of the letters that were not love letters. He has no idea of Martha is a virgin, but is willing to pretend she is.

Both Ginsberg and O’Brien are clearly exploring the contrast between the inner, imaginary world and the outward, rational one. The various ways in which they do not follow the given conventions of their chosen genres help them to do this. In Ginsberg’s case, he chooses to format his poem in a way which, according to Neil Heims, makes it seem like rather intense prose. “”A Supermarket in California” is a short poem made up of unrhymed lines long enough to make it seem like a piece of intensified prose rather than verse.” (Heims, Para 2.). This intensity, Heims states, is one element that helps to place an emphasis on the juxtaposition between the real and the imagined. “The intensity comes from the heightened consciousness of the poet as he transforms everyday objects into symbolic imagery, turning the act of walking through a supermarket and looking at the goods for sale into the process of exploring his own consciousness and the world it confronts.” (Para 2). Ginsberg’s poem does not read like a poem. The line length and structure feel more like reading prose, yet the language and careful construction lend it the surreal feeling that the poet is aiming for in the text.

For O’Brien, the chosen use of the genre of fictional short story is set against the collection’s own front matter and epigraph, which both encourage readers to think of the events therein as true. Robin Silberglied explores this contrast. While the copyright page gives the traditional “this work is fiction” warning, “the front matter encourages “inexperienced” readers to appreciate the text as a “statement of actual things,” as a work of “truth.” (Silbergleid, 129-30). Right from the outset, then, the entire collection of stories is both fiction and fact. From beginning to end, the lines are blurred. The realities of war as O’Brien himself experienced them are told by to fictional characters and the various stories. Silbergleid writes: “If the epigraph reads like an attempt to authorize the use of fiction in order to write history, O’Brien’s narrator also makes liberal use of history (his story) to develop and organize the fiction.” (Silbergleid, 130). The blurred lines between the dreams of the Lieutenant’s love and the actual reality of the letters he is keeping is not only a theme that runs through the collection of stories, but also a question of the book’s actual purpose as well. It blurs the line between factual history and fictional imaginings as the letters do for the Lieutenant in his dreams.

Both Allan Ginsberg and Tim O’Brien use the breaking of certain genre rules in their works to contrast between reality and imagination. Both authors explore the lines between what is real and what is not by making their readers question the automatic expectations that come into play when one reads a certain kind of work. That is some of the best writing because it takes a reader out of his comfort zone, which by its very nature provokes thought and contemplation.

  • Ginsberg, Allan. “A Supermarket in California” Berkley, 1955. From Collected Poems 1947-1980. Harper and Row. 1984. Accessed online on March 16, 2016.
  • Ginsberg, Allan. “Garcia Lorca (Allen’s 1975 Naropa Class)”. The Allan Ginsberg Project. 14 December, 2011. Blog post. Accessed online March 16, 2016.
  • Heims, Neil. “Allan Ginsberg’s “A Supermarket in California.” Literary Contexts in Poetry. October 2012. Online. Accessed March 16, 2016.
  • O’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried”. The Things They Carried. Penguine. New York, 1990. Accessed online on March 16, 2016. T
  • Silbergleid, Robin. “Making Things Present: Tim O’Brien’s Autobiographical Metafiction.” Contemporary Literature 50.1 (2009): 129-155.