Tilting at Windmills

I cannot help myself but to find the image of the sunflower scepter in Ginsberg’s Sunflower Sutra to be of great interest to me. To begin my literary ramblings it may help to delve deeper into the title of the poem. In addition to being considered a collection of short statements that make up a larger work, a sutra is also defined as a few pieces of string that hold a much larger object together. In the case of this short poem, it appears that the Sunflower is the ‘sutra’ that is holding Ginsberg’s reality together. He seems frightened and disillusioned with the advancements of modern humanity rushing at him like a speeding train.

As he transfers his visions of Whitman into the sunflower that he sees gazing over the ‘box house hills’, he sees that the natural beauty of man has lessened in the world. It is replaced with the presence of man-made creations that have been forced onto nature (railroad skin, smog of cheek, eyelid of black mis’ry, sooty hand). These things have certainly taken the place of the natural beauty that his beloved Whitman saw in the world. No longer do we have ‘man root’, instead we are faced with ‘milky breasts of cars’.Ginsberg’s poem gives the feel that his Whitman-esque sunflower is the last vestige of a time when truer beauty existed: “A perfect beauty of a sunflower!”

It is at this point that I return to the specific image of the Sunflower scepter. In my reading of this particular passage it immediately struck me as being of similar circumstance to Don Quixote’s famous charge towards the windmills. Both Ginsberg and Quixote have become blind to their reality and see an imaginary foe just beyond the next hill. Both take up their respective weapon and charge forth against the vision that has so displeased them.

While Quixote fights the giants, Ginsberg fights off the oppressive machines and “Deliver(s) my sermon to my soul”, determined to not release the grasp of appreciation of natural beauty that Whitman’s work has given him. While I realize that the scepter is not the most used of weapons, it does symbolize the authority with which Ginsberg carries on his fight.

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2 Responses to Tilting at Windmills

  1. Charles Carmody says:

    While I think your connection between Ginsberg and Don Quixote is interesting, and I do see Ginsberg’s charge towards the sunflower as a kind of knightly act of chivalry, I do not think that Ginsberg’s foe is imaginary. I think it is a very real foe that Ginsberg is fighting against, and a real message that he is trying to present in the poem. If the sunflower is to be seen as a parallel image to the human soul, then Ginsberg seems to be trying to remind the sunflower of its natural beauty. He says, “You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!” Ginsberg seems to be stating that he understands reality where others do not. He is reminding humankind of the beauty that once dwelled in their souls and is trying to combat the false idea that our souls are like locomotives. In this sense he is trying to instill life back into the sunflower which is described as “crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye.” He is trying to brush off the lies of modern and industrial America that have consumed the sunflower’s flesh.

  2. AVZ says:

    Interesting conversation here. I do think that Trent has an interesting point–one that might problematize our view of “Sunflower Sutra” as a poem of unabashed recovery. I hope to talk tomorrow about the illusory quality of Ginsberg’s various moments of recovery. One could argue that “Howl” returns from the depths of material hell not to address real problems, but to manufacture a very Romantic kind of escape. Trent’s point highlights not the illusory quality of what Ginsberg is fighting against, but the illusory quality of his “attack” or “escape” or “recovery.” But isn’t art necessarily illusory? Isn’t that why it works, why it’s able to speak outside of what we’re immersed in?

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