William Blake’s poem, “London”, was written in 1792 and is a description of a society in which the individuals are trapped, exploited and infected. Blake starts the poem by describing the economic system and moves to its consequences of the selling of people within a locked system of exploitation. One technique that is used is the repetition of a specific word to help accent its meaning to the fullest extent. Blake uses the word “charter’d” (1-2) in the first stanza to describe the street and river of Thames. The word gives the river and street a very legalistic feel as though they are protected by laws and are privately owned. Blake moves on to explain how the people have visible “marks” (3-4) of weakness and woe which are like visible brands of sorrow and distress. In the second stanza Blake stresses the word “every” (5-7) five times. This word gives us the sense of commonality to everyone suffering. It says that no one in London is immune to the exploitation and disease. This idea is driven home with the words “mind-forg’d manacles” (8) which symbolize a society in chains; imprisoned by ideology and status quo. It is possible to assume that there is no deviance from the status quo as the stanza itself has no deviation from its strict iambic tetrameter meter and A-B rhyme scheme. The strict adherence to poetic meter in this stanza strongly contrast the irregular meter of the third stanza.
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In the third stanza Blake lists out several social positions that are affected by the turmoil; the Chimney-sweep, Church, and the Soldier. The job titles listed in the stanza are capitalized making them pronouns and personified. The chimney-sweeper is a figure of pity and industrialization because due to the ever increasing amount of dirty chimneys blackening the entire city with soot. The Church is “black’ning” (10), its reputation is becoming more tarnished as it is trying to ignore or glaze over the brutal smoke belching economy that Blake is describing. The metaphor of the Soldier’s blood on the Palace Walls demonstrate not only a mistreatment of soldiers but also a poor leader of the country creating a disjointed society. Evidence of this disjointness can be found in the structure of the third stanza as it no longer adheres to a strict iambic tetrameter meter. We see this disjointedness in poetic meter continues into the final stanza where Blake uses the technique of enjambment to accent the “Harlot’s curse”(14) and “Infant’s tear” (15). It is now dark and the youthful Harlot does not have a chance to lover her baby because it is a result of commerce and not love. She passes her own misery onto the child who will likely continue passing it onto future generations. She also passes on her disease to cheating husbands which lead us to the potent phrase “the Marriage hearse.” (16) The marriage hearse is an oxymoron for the notion of a happy marriage being undermined by death and disease and causing the marriage to become a funeral procession for love and freedom. Blake’s poem is designed to imply that vision is needed to lift London out of despair and away from its economy driven exploitation.
Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” is a protest poem aimed towards postwar American society and focuses most on the consumerist aspects of society and the lack of connection between the modern world and nature. “A Supermarket in California” is written in prose form and does not adhere to any sort of traditional meter or rhyme scheme making it a shocking and offbeat poem that is sure to stand out which is what a protester would want. Ginsberg is quick to kick off the theme of consumerism by going “shopping for images” (2). In this case the images are not real as he is longing for society to return back to the state it was in pre-war during Whitman’s time. The supermarket in this line also introduces the idea of capitalist America where fruit is mass produced to be the same and is not necessarily produced in the wild. The next few lines describe how families are now shopping at night rather than during the daytime. It can be implied that these families are perfect nuclear families and anyone who does not fit into the family structure stands out as being separate from society and considered unnatural . These individuals in this poem are Gracia Lorca, Walt Whitman, and the speaker himself Allen Ginsberg all of whom are homosexual and have lost their place in society. In this time era, the homosexual community is never spoken about and is not accepted by the norms of society as it may have been in Whitman’s time. Ginsberg notes Whitman as a homosexual because he is described as “childless, lonely, old grubber” (4) and not as a husband. It is possible that Whitman is brought into the poem as a way of juxtaposing what Whitman described America to be in his poetry, and what America has become in Ginsberg’s poetry. The lines “who killed the pork chops? What price bananas?” (5) pose questions of economics. In Whitman’s day a consumer would know where the food came from, who killed it, and how it got its price. It is implied that Whitman’s questions could not be answered by the the store employees. Ginsberg is saying that due to consumerism, we no longer know exactly what we are buying and are therefore no longer connected to nature through the produce available at a supermarket. Ginsberg also uses Whitman’s tasting spree through the store as a way of showing that in Whitman’s day there was no capitalism that forced you to always pay for your pleasures. There is a suggestion here that paying for ones pleasures is not natural. The line “the doors close in an hour” (8) shows that Ginsberg is beginning to acknowledge that his vision of Whitman’s vision of the natural world will not last as it cannot stand up to the modern economy were you can buy everything at a price. Their quest through “solitary streets” (10) past symbols that represent “the lost America” (11), which Whitman described in his poetry, will only lead them to the absolute darkness and loneliness in the current society. Ginsberg closes the poem by comparing “the lost America” (11) to Hades. Charon was the guardian of Hades who would ferry souls across the river Styx. Charon stopped short and let Whitman out on the “smoking bank” (12) of Lethe. The river Lethe, according to Greed mythology, would cause forgetfulness to those who drank from it. One can surmise that Ginsberg is referring to modern society and how it forgets its past and the difference between what is natural and what is a product of humans. This is what ties Ginsberg’s protest against modern America together. The peach, the porkchops, the bananas in the supermarket no longer create a relationship between the consumer and the natural world from which the fruit originated.
Allen Ginsberg’s and William Blake’s poems are both examples poetry designed to make a statement about how society has changed for the worse and that a better alternative needs to be found. Even though these pieces were written over sixty years ago, we can still find a way to relate to them today. The idea of society losing touch with nature as it is expressed in Grinsberg’s poem “A supermarket in Califoria”, is still a concern with today’s processed food, indoor fruit factories, and now even larger supermarkets. Unfortunately the impact of William Blake’s poem has lost quite a bit of its shock value on today’s society but we can still relate to the idea of mechanization with the encroaching robotic arms spread of incurable diseases. If we can feel the impact of the poetry now in 2011, imagine how much impact and shock value the pieces would have had on their audiences when they were first written.
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