Whitman: Question; Ginsberg: Answer

Walt Whitman was thirty-seven when he published this poem:

Excerpt: “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (from «Leaves Of Grass», 1856)

Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!
Clouds of the west – sun there half an hour high – I see you also face to face.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose.
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me; and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

It avails not, time nor place – distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts, of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

These and all else were to me the same as they are to you.
I loved well those cities, loved well the stately and rapid river.
The men and women I saw were all near to me,
Others the same – others who look back on me because I look’d forward to them,
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)

What is it then between us!
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you – I laid in my stores in advance, I considered long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this? Who knows, for all the distance, but I am, as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?
(end excerpt)

Late one evening, exactly a century later . . . In a converted shed out the back of a cottage in Milvia Street, Berkeley, California, on the other side of the American continent, a twenty-nine-year-old homosexual drug-taking poet put down the book he’d been reading – Walt Whitman’s «Leaves of Grass» – and took a walk to the supermarket to buy a bottle of milk. It was late at night, and he was tired, and had a headache. The full moon was high in the sky.

When he returned he sat at his desk and looked at the Whitman book under the lamp, open at the page you have just been looking at. He read the sentence “What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you …” and he started typing. This is what he wrote:

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.

Excerpt from “A Supermarket In California”, by Allen Ginsberg. You can read the rest here.

Ginsberg, 1955
Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco, 1955, around the time he wrote this poem.