Remembering the Sunflower: Suggestions of Hope in Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry

Allen Ginsberg is one of the key figures in the Beat movement. He would have turned 93 this year. In 1956 with his publication of Howl, Ginsberg gained a lot of public attention. It was raw, powerful and filled with anger. The poem took the literary world by surprise and shock. While some critics dismissed the poem as irrelevant and obscene, others lauded the honesty and poetic brilliance in the lines. Ginsberg’s Kaddish followed Howl and depicted the multifaceted feelings he had for his mother, who suffered from mental illness. Most people consider this to be his finest work.
 
My first brush with Ginsberg’s work was in the library of my school. It was his journal from the early fifties and early sixties. What ensued was a rather scintillating experience. Some of it was dry and bleak, but it was a brutally honest piece of work. Ginsberg did not hesitate to express the deepest thoughts that ran through his mind. He explored his subconscious with entries where he narrated his dreams. While most poems written by him carried only hints of optimism which would eventually be run down by pessimism, Sunflower Sutra is one that presents the idea of hope at the end of the poem.
 
The opening reminds one of Ginsberg’s poem In back of the real, where a yellow flower is contrasted with a “tank factory” (Ginsberg). The lines are long which is characteristic of Ginsberg’s poetry. The locomotive is a motif and key symbol in the poem. It represents the giant machinery that governs urban life. It has an adverse effect on the natural world. The idea of the impact of industrialisation is highlighted in the lines “gnarled steel roots of trees and machinery” (Ginsberg). It is not a tree’s roots that he is talking about, but machinery and a “rusty iron pole” (Ginsberg). When he says that there are “no fish in that stream” (Ginsberg), it appears that the “oily water” has destroyed any hope of life. “The hermit in the mounts” (Ginsberg) is a possible reference to the American romantic Thoreau who was known for his adventurous endeavours into the wilderness. The sunflower is introduced in a manner that evokes both beauty and horror.
 
Ginsberg sees a “dead gray shadow” (Ginsberg) before he sees the actual flower. It is his companion, Jack Kerouac, one of the pioneers of the Beat movement, who points out the flower to him. Ginsberg is reminded of “memories of Blake” (Ginsberg). In his younger days, Ginsberg claimed to have had an auditory hallucination of Blake reading his poem Ah! Sunflower and several other poems. The following stanza carries images of dirt and neglect. Ginsberg uses words such as “Greasy”, “black treadles tires” and “dank muck” (Ginsberg). This line leads to the “gray Sunflower poised against the sunset” (Ginsberg). However, it does not bring any relief from the images of dirt. The flower is “crackly bleak and dusty with the / smut and smog and smoke of olden / locomotives in it eye.” (Ginsberg). The sunflower is then associated with the speaker’s soul as he says “my / sunflower O my soul” (Ginsberg). Ginsberg is possibly pointing to the “grime” (Ginsberg) of the city which he believes is manifested in ones spiritual as well as physical being. The “darkened / railroad skin” (Ginsberg) accentuates the image of the industrialised city and connects to the motif of the locomotive.
 
The locomotive has three different connotations in the poem. It stands as a symbol of the industrial revolution. It also refers to “human locomotives” (Ginsberg), suggesting that humans have become machine-like. It could also refer to the movement and constant change in thoughts that humans face as over-thinking beings. The third reference to the locomotive is made with regard to the sunflower. The locomotive and sunflower both stand as a symbol of America’s progress, which remains unfulfilled, since both objects have come to a grinding halt. However, Ginsberg realises that there still is hope in a new vision of America and with a Blakeish concern as seen in The Lamb, Ginsberg addresses the flower, telling it that it is not a locomotive, but a sunflower.
 
Ginsberg then proceeds to deliver a sermon to whoever is willing to listen. He says:
 
We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re
golden sunflowers inside […] (Ginsberg)
 
The concluding lines enter the reader like a warm sunset filled with hopes for a better tomorrow. The poem, uncharacteristic of Ginsberg’s works, produce optimism and hope. The sexual references in a dull, gloomy setting dissolve into nothingness by the end of the poem. Ginsberg’s works are intelligently crafted. His regard for details, reality and symbolism are noteworthy. He blends in the surreal arts with existentialism and madness. Few writers have achieved what Ginsberg has perfected.
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