Accepting The Sunflower Within

Hanna Reynolds

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. 

Reflective questions: 

  • 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? 

Works cited:

Ginsberg, Allen. “Sunflower Sutra by Allen Ginsberg.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,

2 Responses to Accepting The Sunflower Within

  1. Kathleen C August 31, 2022 at 2:51 pm #

    I really enjoyed this analysis on “Sunflower Sutra.” Your identification of Ginsberg’s use of juxtaposition between the pastoral with the industrial as a means to comment on an internal crisis of self-identity is especially succinct. The line you quoted about the sun setting over the river really stuck out to me the first time I read the poem and I think it serves as a great example to highlight this use of competing imagery – the beautiful image of the sunset set against a polluted backdrop – to create an sense of struggle within the poem. Further, your note on Ginsberg’s alluding to Platonic forms is really interesting and not something I noticed at first. But, as you show, there really is this sense of seeking knowledge in the poem and by tying it to this notion that the physical form is absolute and (if I’m remembering my Platonism correctly) a source of knowledge. This seems to be a common theme in Beat poetry, or at least something I also noticed in De Prima’s poems. In my own critical response post, I read a source by David Stephen Calonne in which he discussed De Prima as a self-proclaimed “hermetic” poet. From what I gathered of hermeticism, it seems like there is a large overlap in this idea of knowledge in relation to self-discovery.

  2. Prof VZ August 31, 2022 at 4:03 pm #

    Great conversation here! I appreciate the attention to detail in Hannah’s post–especially all the ways in which the natural and human-made are gnarled and entwined. I also like the reference to Plato, though I would like to think about the poem’s obsession with form and formal as a reflection on the power of the aesthetic more generally–this connection forged through reference to the romantic poet Blake’s “Sunflower” from his songs of innocence and experience. Ginsberg, here, make a strong case note for the extemporaneous and improvisational, but also for the durable utility of aesthetic form as something that connects, that creates knowledge, that reframes the grime of existence. There’s a great article by Robert Kaufman that touches on this (Everybody Hates Kant: Blakean Formalism and the Symmetries of Laura Moriarty) if you’d like to check it out. We often think of the Beats as opposed to formalism in a traditional sense (literary formalism, allegiance to pre-set poetic forms, the new critical obsession with close aesthetic systems). And yet we find here a different way to value form and formalism.

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