Ginsberg’s Sunflowers

Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” is definitely a poem of crisis and recovery. Ginsberg’s sunflower suggests an America that has been tarnished and polluted by the carelessness of modern society. In observing the “dead gray shadow” that is the sunflower Ginsberg finds both beauty and horror within it.

I cannot help but be reminded of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish”. In Bishop’s poem the speaker is observing something ugly, something that almost seems to be decaying before her eyes and yet the speaker continues to watch it. As the poem, the descriptions and the observations continue the speaker finds a profound meaning. The speaker, a fisherman (or perhaps fisherwoman), has caught a fish. The reader experiences a major pause between the catching and releasing of the fish. The speaker seems impressed not by the size of the fish but its ability to endure. The speaker observes five gruesome hooks broken off in the tattered lip of the fish and describes them:

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.

Shortly after this description “victory filled up the little rented boat” and the full weight of this old fish’s ability to endure and persevere crashed down upon the speaker. The fish might have been old and tattered but this fish still had life within him. The speaker lets the fish go.

The tattered sunflower of Ginsberg’s poem is much like Bishop’s fish. Although a sunflower is meant to be noted for its impressive size there is something more impressive about the sunflower’s ability to endure. This object of beauty has taken on the pollution of industry. While confused by the bleakness of the sunflower Ginsberg admonishes nature for its absolute resilience.

The sunflower ultimately serves to represent an America that has deterred from the America of the American Dream, however, it is an America that can recover and can endure. Much like Bishop’s observation of the ugly fish, Ginsberg finds a particular inner beauty in this rugged sunflower.

The poem begins with Ginsberg and Jack Keouac lamenting the carelessness of industry and thus begins the crisis. The reader experiences his or her own crisis and he or she searches the natural setting for a beauty associated with nature but finds only desolation. The sunflower immediately reminds Ginsberg of his hallucination in New York where he believed that he heard William Blake reciting “Ah Sun-Flower”.

Ginsberg brings in another symbol at this point, the locomotive. While the locomotive initially appears to represent 19th century industrialization (and goes hand-in-hand with Ginsberg’s idea of pollution and desolation), the locomotive is quickly changed into a more subtle symbol. The locomotive, once a symbol of the American dream moving forward and the progression of America, is now just as bleak and desolate as the sunflower and the surrounding environment. Ginsberg addresses the sunflower, “Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old loco-motive?”. Ginsberg then exclaims, “You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!” In this exclamation Ginsberg reminds us that this desolate place is not what America truly is. The America that Ginsberg is witnessing is represented by the tattered, gray sunflower. But the America that America truly is and always will be is the golden, fruitful inside of the sunflower, the depths of the seeds and the tap root that allow the sunflower (and America) to latch on for dear life, to endure, to persevere and to grow.

Ginsberg’s thoughtfulness of the sunflower has finally allowed him to achieve a great realization, a realization that has now motivated him into action. Ginsberg writes:

So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too and anyone who’ll listen

Ginsberg ends with the beginning of his sermon, a sermon of hope and rebirth. He reminds us that:

We’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed
& hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset.”

In these last lines of “Sunflower Sutra” Ginsberg recovers from his crisis, and we as readers recover from our crisis as we begin to see a beauty restored and a powerful hope. Just as the sunflower has endured, so we shall endure and just as the sunflower has continued to grow, so we shall continue to grow despite any opposition.

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2 Responses to Ginsberg’s Sunflowers

  1. Olivia James says:

    I agree – Sunflower Sutra seems like a perfectly mapped out poem of crisis and recovery. However, listening to Allen Ginsberg read the poem immensely added to my understanding of the poem. I felt that the inflections and tone of Ginsberg’s voice clearly revealed the beginning, middle, and end of the crisis. The way he began reading reminded me of the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry reading we listened to in class a few weeks ago. Ginsberg’s lines such as “I walked on the banks” and “Jack Kerouac sat beside me” in a peaceful, confident voice were definitely reminiscent of Whitman.
    When Ginsberg “rushed up enchanted” to his “first sunflower,” you can feel the excitement, almost naïvete, in his voice at the prospect of this beautiful flower. His tone quickly turns dark when he conjures up visions of “dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreated” and so on. These dark visions reveal his profound despair with all that is wrong in the world (going back to that deep-seeded fear of the time period), owing largely to industrialization. Describing the sunflower as gray lumps it into the “muck” category, suggesting that natural beauty is being destroyed by modernization.

    I read the line “The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives” to be in adoration of men, suggesting they are beautiful, organic, creatures completely separate from the harmful, dead, destructive machines they create. Ginsberg wants to remind us that these things are not innately intertwined.

    He begins to recover the crisis when he sees the “perfect beauty of a sunflower.” He acknowledges the fact that the flower is inevitably affected by progressing society (“Poor dead flower? When did you forget you were a flower?”), but at the same time instills a new hope in man and nature. Before I heard Ginsberg read the poem, I wondered if perhaps the perfectly sweet ending and recovery was supposed to be ironic. After listening to him read it in a passionately optimistic tone, it became apparent that he truly believes that the grime, despair, and “muck,” are not what defines men; instead “we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside.”

  2. Justine Rowe says:

    My roommates and I planted a sunflower garden at the end of this summer. These past 2 weeks, 2 of them have begun to flower and show big yellow beautiful sunflowers. At some point on Tuesday, we all came home to find that someone had come into our yard and cut off 1 of the flowers! Now we are left with a 4 foot tall green stalk next to our flowers. When this happened, I couldn’t help but thinking of “Sunflower Sutra” and the ideas of industry’s destructive effects on nature. However, this incident seems like destruction of the soul, a complete carelessness of other people and of nature.

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