Accepting The Sunflower Within
Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Sunflower Sutra” explores how identity is put into crisis through the perversion of self and how it can be recovered by accepting a more complex outlook of one’s own identity. Ginsberg achieves this through a bombardment of direct and impassioned language and imagery; by paralleling pastoral and romantic imagery with industrialization and decay, he unites the two together, making perverse the established characteristics of Romanticism as a means of showcasing the crisis of an expanding sense of self.
“I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry.” (Allen Ginsberg, Poetry Foundation)
The reader is introduced to the narrator’s crisis within the first line of the poem. Here, in this expository opening, the narrator creates a feeling of sinking. This is done through deictic association, as the narrator sits, an action that denotes downward movement; this movement is prepositioned with the adverbial phrase “down under” to emphasize further the feeling of sinking. This feeling, along with his view of “the sunset over the box house hills,” prompts the narrator to cry. The reader gets a sense of disorientation as we are unsure how a sunset, something typically described as beautiful and natural, can prompt such a reaction.
“Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the riverbank, tired and wily.”
In the next couple sentences of the poem, the narrator illustrates the scenery. The landscape is a perversion of a typical pastoral scene. The imagery, though pastoral (“trees”, “roots”), uproots traditional romanticism with its inclusion of the industrial (“steel”, “machinery”). Ancient properties, such as trees, which become “gnarled” overtime, are paralleled to the bygone industry that has corroded the landscape with its “busted rusty iron pole[s].” The river, too, unites the pastoral and the industrial, as it reflects, and distorts, the sunset’s “red sky” with its polluted “oily water.” The area is desolate — there are “no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts” — save for the narrator and his “busted… companion.” This perception of corrosion is further emphasized, and made personal, by the figurative description of the two being “rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums…tired and wily.” The narrator’s perception of the landscape and his perception of him and his companion are tied together. They too, like the landscape, have suffered catastrophe and have become a distorted and perverse image of themselves.
“Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, as big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust—
—I rushed up enchanted—it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake — my visions — Harlem and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past — and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotive in its eyes…”
It is in this section of the poem that the narrator’s identity is put into crisis. The sunflower is a direct parallel to how the narrator sees himself, which is made clear through the personification of the flower. The imagery paints the sunflower as human, as it is described as being as “big as a man,” and like the narrator, is “sitting dry.” It is the observance of the sunflower that sparks the narrator’s memories of the past, the ways in which his identity was formed. The narrator — who we can assume, through the narrator’s association to Jack Kerouac, another beat poet, is Ginsberg himself — writes in an impassioned, narratorial manner, as the poem runs on without the full pause of a period, but with the inclusion of commas, and em-dashes, that mirror the natural flow of speech. His memories, which are fragmented, give off a tone of wretchedness; they are bleak memories, dead, hellish, forgotten memories of “dank muck and razor-sharp artifacts,” memories that seem to be shared with the sunflower as the sunflower is in a state of remembrance as well, being “poised against the sunset… with…[the] locomotive in its eyes.” The crisis, then, is the realization that the self has suffered perversion: though the narrator has perceived himself as once holding the characteristics of a sunflower — natural, beautiful, individual — and therefore the characteristics of the Romantics, his life, and the perception of himself, changed course due to adverse experiences, and is altered by the same “pollution” the locomotive has caused the landscape.
“Unholy battered thing you were, my sunflower, O my soul, I loved you then!
The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotive…”
This is the poem’s key moment, the line in which the poem changes course from establishing crisis to establishing resolve. Here, the narrator regards the sunflower pitifully, using idiomatic language by calling it a “battered thing.” By using the possessive for both “sunflower” and for “soul,” the narrator is linking the two together through realized compassion. The adverb “then” shows, through its temporal implication, that the feeling of love is new. This feeling is furthered by the narrator’s realization that “the grime was no man’s grim,” and therefore not the fault of the individual; the fault lies in the more universal and natural forces of life such as “death” and “human” progression.
“…and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos —all these
Entangled in your mummied roots — and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!
Here, the narrator bombards the reader with grotesque imagery. “Skin…the guts and innards…rusty tongues…cunts…milky breasts… asses…sphincters,” all relate to the natural human body. They are paired with their opposites, the unnatural, which is the industrial reality in which the narrator lives. This imagery of being natural and unnatural, pastoral and industrial, at the same time is intentionally done, as the narrator is unifying the two seemingly disparate images together into one, albeit grotesque, landscape and body. They are “entangled” in the roots of the sunflower, an uncompromisable part of the narrator’s identity. He celebrates this by exclaiming that the sunflower has “glory in [its] form!” This is calling forth the idea of platonic form. No matter what we might perceive about our physically and emotionally changing “self,” the form of our “self” is absolute in its natural characteristics, like the sunflower.
“—We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread black dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishments-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision”
In the last line of the poem, the narrator recovers his identity by accepting a more complex version of himself. He exclaims that he, as well as others who relate to his situation, retains the characteristics of the sunflower despite the effects of the locomotive — the unintentional outcomes of lived experience and human nature. This mindset, which is one of acceptance and unification, is presented in the knowledge that one can be “dread black dusty” while at the same time be “blessed by [their] own seed,” despite the scrutiny of our judgment represented by the spying eyes. The repetition of “mad” creates this unity between the sunflower and the locomotive, and therefore unity within the narrator’s own identity.
- Are there hints in reading “Sunflower Sutra” that might point to the “perversion of self” as being related to one’s sexual identity, specifically a non-conforming sexual identity?
- How might Ginsberg’s sexual identity as well as the time he wrote this poem in (the 50s), contextualize the poem?
Ginsberg, Allen. “Sunflower Sutra by Allen Ginsberg.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49304/sunflower-sutra.