Sunflower Sutra summary
“Sunflower Sutra” was composed by Allen Ginsberg in 1955. It encapsulates numerous ideas that Ginsberg would explore during his career. Its underlying message is one of a dismal American landscape ravaged and wrecked by contemporary society’s reckless work. However, unlike Ginsberg’s previous poems, such as “America,” “Sunflower Sutra” concludes on a hopeful note, with Ginsberg proclaiming that he will preach a “sermon” of light to those who see only gloom in their country and lives.
The poem is mainly a description of a withering sunflower in a heavily polluted environment. Ginsberg employs several words and phrases to describe the destructive encroachment of industrialization on the natural world. The first section of the poem portrays the flower’s demise, while the final section offers a contrast; the flower, though wilted, is not a sign of helplessness or weakness. The poet wishes for his readers, as well as the characters in the poems, to comprehend that nothing/no individual is so defenceless as to be wiped away by destructive forces. The inherent spirit of all living things and beings is capable of withstanding all sorts of physical/materialistic assault.
Analysis of Sunflower Sutra
Allen Ginsberg, one of the most well-known Beat writers and celebrated American poets of his period, wrote Sunflower Sutra. He was born in Newark, New Jersey, on June 3, 1926, and raised in Paterson, New Jersey, as the son of an English teacher and a Russian expatriate.
The poem includes some of his most commonly addressed themes. The main theme of the poem is the destruction of the American landscape by the encroachments of modern industrialised culture. While a poem like “America” finishes on a depressing note, “Sunflower Sutra” concludes on a hopeful note, with the speaker declaring that he will preach a sermon to himself, Kerouac, and, most importantly, “anyone who will listen.”
We find the speaker (Ginsberg?) sitting “under the huge shade of a Southern/ Pacific locomotive” when the poem begins. “The sunset /over the box house hills,” he says. The vista should make him happy, but it only makes him cry when he sees it in the context of an unattractive metropolitan landscape. The speaker is not alone; Jack Kerouac is seated next to him. Their thoughts and sentiments are similar:
“We thought the same thoughts/ of the soul, bleak and blue and sad eyed…”
They are unable to appreciate the beauty of the sunset because they are surrounded by artefacts that represent relentless urbanisation (“the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery”). Sunsets, hills, trees, and other things of pure beauty and delight appear in Romantic poetry, but they have lost their allure in the background of an unattractive urbanised landscape. The image of trees in lines 8-9 does not generate any organic sensation in the readers; rather, it is used to emphasise America’s terrible automation. As a result, the speaker and Kerouac are “surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of machinery trees.”
The negative repercussions of industrialization are shown in the following lines. The river’s water has turned oily, maybe as a result of the industrial waste that has been flushed into it. It is inhospitable to fish. The quiet residence of a hermit who wishes to be cut off from the city’s bustle cannot be the mountains that overlook San Francisco. Even the landscape of the mountains appears to have been encroached upon. This desolate landscape is observed by the speaker and Kerouac. “Rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums/ on the river bank, tired and wily,” they characterise themselves. They do not appear to have any way out of this horribly automated society; they must be a part of it, even if they despise it.
“Look at the Sunflower,” Kerouac says to the speaker at this point. In the dirty environment, the speaker could not conceive of seeing a sunflower. He perceives the blossom as something abnormal, “a dead grey shadow… as big as a man,” unable to believe such a presence. As he runs up to see it, memories of Blake’s auditory vision (while reading the poem “Ah! Sunflower”) and his life in New York flood back to him:
It was my first sunflower, memories of Blake. . . . . past
The objects depicted in these lines are obscene symbols of urbanisation, automation, and industry, with New York being the most urbanised city on the planet.
The Sunflower that Kerouac depicts, which should have rekindled the speaker’s enthusiasm, has lost its allure because of the cruel and polluted environment in which it grows:
and the grey Sunflower poised against the sunset,
crackly, bleak and dusty with the smut and smog
and smoke of olden locomotive in its eye.
The personified flower is described as having been chemically damaged rather than being beautiful in the following description. The seeds have dropped off, and the dried leaves of the plant jut out of the stem-like arms, giving it the appearance of a “battered crown.” In other words, the flower, like the plant on which it grows, is not a beautiful object, but one that has been turned ugly and cruelly destroyed by industrial garbage.
The speaker outlines the contaminants that have destroyed each section of the personified flower in the lines that follow (from line 41 onwards):
all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or protuberance of artificial worse-than-dirt—industrial— modern—all that civilization spotting your crazy golden crown
The speaker makes it pretty clear in another list of objects, with obvious sexual overtones, that the plant did not grow from a layer of natural soil, but from a home-pile of sand and sawdust; its roots were tangled up in the skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, and so on. As a Beat poet, Ginsberg employs these sexual images to express his rage at a mechanised metropolitan society that has little regard for what is beautiful and artistic.
After describing its pitiful and unsightly existence, the speaker shows his adoration for the sunflower in the last thirty odd words. He is hesitant to admit that any form of industrial invasion has the potential to ruin what is lovely, organic, original, and artistic:
and you there
standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!
A perfect beauty of a sunflower! A perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! A sweet natural eye to the new hip moon woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!
The speaker has grounds for refusing to accept the flower’s ugliness. According to him, the flower possesses innate beauty and strength, allowing it to survive any attacks. The flower’s personification is highlighted once more. Although the flower is filthy, “many flies buzzed around” it. The speaker objects because the flower does not declare its beauty and strength as the Sunflower; instead, it curses both the destructive external force and itself:
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul?
The speaker warns it not to lose its original identity as sunflower and to stop thinking of itself as a locomotive, which is the very cause of its and America’s destruction:
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?
the ghost of a locomotive? the spectre and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
The poem’s many references to the “locomotive” have a unique significance in American history. Nobody anticipated that the industrialization process it signalled would have such a devastating influence on the American landscape when it was initially introduced. Thus, even Walt Whitman, an ideal poet for Ginsberg, praised its arrival in his poem “A Passage to India.” He envisioned it as a way to link individuals across the country and to observe America’s diverse scenery. So he began to sing:
I see over my own continent the Pacific Railroad, surmounting every barrier;
I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte, carrying freight
I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-
I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world…
Bridging the three or four thousand miles of land travel Tying the Eastern to the Western sea. . .
The locomotive’s harmful impact is now apparent in crass industrialization and all-encompassing contamination of the countryside. As a result, even Ginsberg’s personified sunflower decides to consider itself “an impotent dirty old locomotive/or the ghost of a locomotive.”
However, the speaker’s current endeavour is to resurrect the flower’s withering spirit and instil in it enough faith to assert its beauty and force. With this in mind, he draws a clear line between what is lovely and what is despicable:
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!
And you locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!
He picks up the battered, “skeleton thick” sunflower and keeps it by his “side like a sceptre”—a sign of power—with this address.
The poem’s concluding section (the last nine lines) is the speaker’s sermon to himself, Kerouac, and “anyone who will listen.” The locomotive and sunflower are employed as potent symbols once more. The locomotive (industrialization), the speaker exhorts, has undoubtedly had an annihilating impact on the sunflower (beauty/art), but the damage is just external; beneath the layers of grime, the flower retains its inherent beauty and vigour, which are unaffected. Interestingly, the poet uses the second person (inclusive) pronoun ‘we,’ giving his speech a kind of global importance throughout America, if not beyond. The industrialization process may reach terrifying proportions, yet the spirit of America handed down over ages remains unbreakable:
We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside, we’re blessed by our own seed and golden hairy naked accomplishment. . .
Human beings cannot be created from industrial waste, corporate greed, or military bloodshed. The spirit of America is a sunflower, and every American is a sunflower.
Analysis of Sunflower Sutra
The word ‘Sutra’ is key in the poem’s title. Sutra is a type of Buddhist literature. This genre of literature features works comprised entirely of aphorisms. As you may be aware, an aphorism is a brief phrase or line that expresses a truth or wisdom; it is, in the words of MH Abrams, “a succinct and pointed statement of a serious maxim, opinion, or general truth.” Ginsberg’s poem is not only aphoristic; it is far more sophisticated, but, like with Sutra, the message it delivers is straightforward and true.
The sunflower as a symbol is elaborately treated in the poem, although it primarily represents America and its indomitable spirit. America, like the sunflower in the poem, has been tarnished and beaten, yet the poem argues that it possesses the innate ability to rebuild and reinstall itself. Although beaten on the outside, it retains its beauty on the inside. What is required is for people to recognise that America can reclaim its innate beauty. The beauty of America is in its fundamental values, which include free expression and progressive political and social philosophy. Ginsberg, like a romantic poet-seer, presents this beauty to a country that has abandoned its fundamental ideals.
The poem could be regarded as prophetic. A prophetic poem has its origins in biblical prophetic literature. The Old Testament prophets, prompted by the Holy Spirit, frequently warned Israel’s disobedient people from God’s vengeance. The poems “America” and portions of “Howl” contain prophetic elements. However, in “Sunflower Sutra,” Ginsberg presents a vision of a Romantic civilization devoid of Industrial devastation, a society capable of reverting to its natural beauty. The fact that the poem’s concluding words resemble a sermon further emphasises the poem’s prophetic character.
The poem, like many others by Ginsberg, contains a variety of long lines that do not follow any particular metrical or rhythmic pattern. It has a breath-like beat. These lines enable him to communicate his message to his leaders succinctly. Each Stanza is comprised of a few lines that hammer home a point. This imparts a Sutra-like feel to the poem.
John Tytell draws parallels between Blake’s “Ah-Sunflower” and Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra.” He describes the last poem as “an elegy of glorious optimism for a decomposing sunflower.” Both poems are concerned with the mutability and transience of living objects, as well as the certainty of death. The critic informs us that the sunflower Ginsberg sees is an industrial flower, and as such, it appears to be ugly. The poet describes it as “the world’s flower, worn, brittle, dry yellow—miracle of gravel life springing to the bud.” A poem such as “Howl” features a repetitious base form (for example, the pronoun ‘Who’ is repeated). Ginsberg establishes a kind of developing rhythmic beat in “Sunflower Sutra” without resorting to such repetition. The poet is attempting to present, to quote Tytell once more, “a paean to the life-force within the wasteland, the sordid details of junk, treadles tyres, used condoms, and abandoned tin cans and industrial grime enveloping the desiccated sunflower in which Ginsberg chooses to believe, vigorously asserting his belief by seizing the skeleton stalk and holding it at his side like a sceptre.”
The final section of the poem is a verse paragraph that bears a strong resemblance to Whitman’s verse. Dr Richard Bucke, one of Whitman’s disciples, has documented a mystical experience that his teacher had between 1853-54. As with Ginsberg’s Blake vision, this encounter “resulted in an ecstatic sense of ineffable joy, a knowledge of the universe’s unity, of the bonds that connect men and all living things.” Whitman’s appreciation of life and fellow men reflects the experience’s impact. His writings demonstrated his capacity to empathise with and adore everything in the cosmos, living and non-living. Whitman’s celebration of life in all its manifestations and his capacity to perceive beauty in everything are so strong and expansive that sensible folks may find them emotional. Ginsberg’s eulogy of the dead flower and the optimism that he builds from it demonstrates this celebration of life.
Study Questions ( Solved)
Q. Can you explain how “Sunflower Sutra” is different from “A Supermarket in California”?
Answer. The first poem is less optimistic than the second one (Read the analyses of the two poems). The sermon in the second poem underlines the poet’s hope for America.
Q. How does the poet bring in pollution as a theme in the poem?
Answer. The poet refers to many objects that can cause environmental pollution. For example, ‘busted rusty iron’, ‘oily water’ and ‘dank muck’. You can find more such expressions in the poem.
Q. Read William Blake’s poem on sunflower and see if you can compare the flower with Ginsberg’s sunflower.
Answer. Blake’s poem is given below. Both the poems are about flowers and their destruction. The destruction of the sunflower is caused by man but of the rose by nature (the worm); does Blake’s poem end on an optimistic note like Ginsberg’s?
The Sick Rose by William Blake O Rose, thou art sick:
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night In the howling storm,
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy; And his dark secret love Does they life destroy.
Q. Pick out any two images from the poem and comment on their significance.
Answer. The sunflower itself is a symbol and its symbolic value is described in the Analysis. The ‘locomotive’ and ‘sceptre’ are also symbols.