Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra” was written in 1955 during Ginsberg’s time in Berkeley, California. It represents many of the themes that Ginsberg would take up throughout his career. It’s overarching message is one of a desolate American landscape, destroyed and devastated by the careless work of modern society. But, unlike Ginsberg’s other poems, like “America,” “Sunflower Sutra” ends with a glimmer of hope as Ginsberg proclaims he will preach a “sermon” of light to all that see only despair in their country and their lives.
Ginsberg titles the poem as a “Sutra,” a Buddhist form of literature in which a string of aphorisms compose a body of work. An aphorism is a kind of quick line - spoken or written - that uses wit or humor to state a deep seeded truth. Ginsberg’s poem is more complex than a simple Sutra, however, though by titling the poem as such he means to suggest that the message of the poem is really quite simple.
The sunflower has many representations throughout the poem, but it means to finally suggest an America that has been tarnished and battered, but contains the ability to be redeemed and to be beautiful once again. In fact, the sunflower still holds the form of beauty inside of it, an Aristotelean view of beauty, and that beauty can shine forth if only people expand their thought to understand it as such. In this way, America and its core values - freedom of expression, progressive political and social thought - contains the inner form of beauty. Ginsberg sees himself, in the line of Romantic poets, as a prophet whose job it is to show this beauty to a country that has become rotten at its core.
In the line of Ginsberg’s prophetic poems - a style based on the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic literature in which a person is called to proclaim God’s wrath to an unfaithful Israelite nation - this poem could be considered Ginsberg’s original vision that calls him to a prophetic life. “America,” and parts of “Howl” contain the threat of wrath on an unfaithful people. But in this poem the reader sees the initial rays of hope brought forth and recalled in Ginsberg’s vision of a Romantic society that rejects industrial blight and accepts the beauty and natural power of the world as it has been originally created. The last lines of the poem even take on the form of a sermon or religious message, further exemplifying the prophetic nature of Ginsberg’s poem.
The form of the poem is in the continuum of Ginsberg’s other poetry based in the long line - a form that he found to be most conducive to the message he wanted to convey in his art. Each line does not contain a specific number of beats or syllables but is instead meant to move with the rhythm of breath. The poem uses short bursts of stanzas interweaved with two or three lines that express a moment of enlightenment or truth. In this way, Ginsberg’s poem becomes a Sutra.
The first lines open the poem with a lament. Ginsberg uses varied images to depict the growth of modern industrial and commercial society and the loss of a “wild” West and the end of the American frontier. Ginsberg says that he sits down “under the / huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive” and looks at the sunset over “the box house hills....” (1-3) The scene of growing urbanization in the face of this beautiful sunset only makes Ginsberg cry.
Ginsberg is not alone in this sadness. Jack Kerouac is with him, both spiritually and literally and he takes a seat with Ginsberg to lament their losses. Ginsberg says that are surrounded by the “gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery” but that their thoughts about the value of such things were “the same.” (5-6). Ginsberg uses natural imagery to depict industrial blight. Ginsberg is using a technique that the Romantic poets used; a picture of raw nature meant to elicit a feeling in the reader of awe and respect for the natural world. Yet Ginsberg twists this imagery. It is not really a tree’s roots we are looking at but machinery and rusted iron. The reader is disappointed because nothing is as beautiful as it should be.
The picture of industrial waste continues. The river that the two see is covered with a film of oil that makes it impossible for fish to live in. The mountains that overlook San Francisco can no longer support the hermit who might live off the land. Ginsberg might be giving a veiled reference to Thoreau, whose famous experiment at Walden Pond is a prime example of the American Romantic tradition.
Ginsberg and Kerouac sit and watch this display of wasted land and resources, “rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums....” (9) It is worth reflecting on why the bum is different from the hermit that Ginsberg noted in previous lines. The bum, in Beat literature, was a holy figure, made sacred by the sacrifice that the person made to live both in and outside of the strictures of the modern world. Thus, the bum was a part of the society that he hated and this fact drove him insane. The hermit might very well be insane, but he has chosen to live apart from society, from art, and from his own expression.
Suddenly, Kerouac tells Ginsberg to “Look at the Sunflower....” (11). This would seem to be an object out of place in such a blighted landscape that Ginsberg had described in previous lines. But, as Ginsberg looks at the sunflower he sees both beauty and horror. Ginsberg first sees an abnormality of nature, a “dead gray shadow” that is “big as a man...” He believes that, at first, he cannot be seeing what he is actually seeing and he has memories “of Blake / my visions - Harlem.” (11-14).
Ginsberg is here referencing one of the most important artistic moments in his life. As a young man, living in New York City, Ginsberg had an auditory hallucination where he heard the voice of William Blake reading poetry. The references to sunflowers now make to both Ginsberg and the reader. One of William Blakes famous poems was about a sunflower. Titled “Ah, Sunflower,” the poem references the beauty of youth that is strived after by mankind. Ginsberg’s poem, in this way, is a continuation of Blake’s modernism, yet it shows the extremes of pollution and corruption that have come into the world.
Ginsberg spends the next few lines remembering his time in New York (15-19). It is not a beautiful scene, but one that mirrors the pictures of pollution and environmental devastation that Ginsberg finds on the West Coast. New York is filled with the culmination of industry and this culmination has made the city foul and nasty. But there was a moment of redemption for Ginsberg in New York; it was the vision of Blake’s sunflower, “poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty / with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives....” (20-21).
The sunflower is a difficult thing for Ginsberg to interpret because, while it is meant to be an object of beauty, it has taken over the weariness and pollution of the environment it lives in. Yet, Ginsberg sees the flower as persevering in the face of such hardships and he relates to such action. The holy bums of the Beat poets must do the same. Ginsberg writes that “The grime (of the flower) was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives” (31). Ginsberg subtly changes the meaning of the word “locomotive” here. When first used, it denoted the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century and the way that revolution ended up paving a path of devastation. Here, when using the word, Ginsberg means himself and Kerouac and the other Beat poets. They have taken on the characteristics of the locomotive - always in motion, powerful, and dominant of their artistic landscape.
Ginsberg continues to describe the desolate scene that he and Kerouac find himself, yet this time he means to call attention to the plight of the these human “locomotives” who find themselves in an America of waste and destruction. Much like he did in “Howl,” Ginsberg uses crude sexual imagery and vivid pictures of homosexual acts to wrap this American landscape into a picture of lewd censorship of its best minds.
These lewd, disturbing images are contrasted with the sunflower, the “perfect beauty” which is a “sweet natural eye to the new hip moon....” (45-46). Here, Ginsberg means to suggest that the Romantic tradition still has something to say to the modern industrial and corporate society. Just as the Romantic poets prophesied of the pending doom of the growing industrialism contrasted with the natural beauty and order of the world, so too can that message be translated into Ginsberg’s America and a “hip” new direction.
Ginsberg then shifts the meaning of the word “locomotive” once again and becomes more specific in his meaning of the “sunflower.” It is now clear that the sunflower represents America, a land once filled with the promise of progress and advancement. The locomotive was the symbol of that progress - a machine powerful enough to connect the coasts and bring about a revolution in transportation and human ingenuity. Yet, the sunflower, as well as the locomotive, have lost their luster and have in a way died. America has given up and decided that it is “an impotent dirty old locomo- / tive...” (51-52). But that’s not who America really is, Ginsberg says. “You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!” (55).
The realization of this makes Ginsberg want to jump into action. His new vision of an America that remembers its progressive roots has taken root in his own soul, so he “brabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a / scepter...” (57-58). This message is so dangerous, and will be offensive to so many, that he will have to use this sunflower not for its beauty but as a weapon. Ginsberg knows that he will “delver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll / listen...” (59-60).
Ginsberg ends with the beginning of this sermon. Humanity, and America, are not composed of the grime of industry, the greed of corporatism, and the violence of war. People are “golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own /see & hairy naked accomplishment...” (62-63). This is a vision of America as a new kind of locomotive and a vision of the desolate landscape as, once again, a picture of beauty.