Allen Ginsberg is one of the most important and accomplished writers and poets of the beat generation. With works such as Howl being said to have ignited the Renaissance of modern poetry in America, Ginsberg distinguishes a style and voice that has been made concrete in the history of American culture and literature. While Howl can be said be a work that encapsulates and forms the philosophical and theoretical paradigm of the voice of the beat generation. Other works of his, such as Sunflower Sutra and A Supermarket in California voice various ideas of the beats in a more specific and direct manner.
This essay will focus specifically on the themes of crisis and recovery of the figurative and literal condition of the American landscape, the romanticised ideologies of its past, its present corruption and the tethered yet enduring intrinsic value that it possesses. This will be done by drawing on a close analysis of Sunflower Sutra and then by a discussion of how these themes are portrayed in A Supermarket in California.
Constant reference to Howl, the philosophical ideologies that it encompasses and the context in which it was written will be made in order to further emphasise a greater understanding of the said themes.
The beat generation, mainly represented in the 1950’s, was a generation largely influenced and shaped by the events and occurrences that took place during and after World War 2. It was an era when capitalism and industrialisation was fast growing and people were disillusioned by the inhumane and shocking events that had occurred. This brought many aspects of everyday life and social norms into question. The beat generation in many ways offered an alternative answer to these questions.
They rebelled from the fast growing trends in conservative American culture and society. They adopted more liberal ideologies and were influenced by Eastern religion and philosophy, left-wing political agendas, freedom of sexuality and drug use, the romantics, anti-realism and artistic and non-conformist forms of art and expression. These ideologies and influences are constantly referenced within the art and poetry produced by the beats. Both Sunflower Sutra and A supermarket in California were written in 1955; this is right in the heart of the up rising of the beat generation and was published in Howl and other poems in 1956 (Davis et al).
Sunflower Sutra is a poem that can be described as being largely based around the theme of crisis and recovery (Davis et al). Ginsberg uses the sunflower as a symbol for both America and people in general. Even though the sunflower is described as being withered, he uses it to create a hopeful portrayal of the American people. It is a symbol of something that has an intrinsic value, which is capable of great endurance in the face of a harsh environment (Davis et al). Ginsberg sets up this symbol of the sunflower in an extraordinary manner. The poem begins with Ginsberg creating a scene that depicts the current state of the condition of America. He is sitting with Jack Kerouac on the dock of a railway station and observing his environment and it is here when he begins to create a depiction of the contrast between the natural and industrial setting. Everywhere around him everything is polluted. They are surrounded by the ‘gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery’ (Ginsberg 35), the water is covered with a layer of oil and there is no fish alive in the river. Here Ginsberg makes creates imagery of the collision of the natural and industrial setting, everything is depicted as being intertwined and tarnished. This represents the enormity of the pollution that is at the heart of modern society and how deeply ingrained and damaging its effects are.
The technique that he uses here is brilliant; his style of writing references that of the romantics. The romantics were known to have an intimate and spiritual bond with nature and often their poetry began with describing the beauty and wonder of the natural setting. Ginsberg uses this same technique, yet he perverse it in order to create an idea in the readers mind that something is wrong. This can also be seen in A Supermarket in California where he walks, in his imagination, with Walt Whitman down the isles of a supermarket and tries to find a romantic sense of pleasure in the ‘tasting artichokes’ and ‘possessing every frozen delicacy’ (Ginsberg 29), yet it is a contrived sense of romanticism as they are in fact in a supermarket. The use of this technique in both poems differ slightly from one another, yet they emphasise the same idea that something is deeply wrong with the current state of America, which has swapped its natural sense of wonder as a commodity for commoditisation and industry.
Ginsberg also speaks of how there are ‘no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves, rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums’ (Ginsberg 35). It’s interesting to note here how Ginsberg chooses to depict himself and Kerouac as well as make a point of saying that there is no longer a place for the natural traveller in America anymore. In the beat generation, bums were seen to represent a holy people. They are people who have chosen to live both within and outside of society and this is seen by Ginsberg to be a note worthy sacrifice and choice in life (Davis et al). This theme of living as a bum and choosing to live a life that reflects being from but not of modern society is a theme that Ginsberg uses throughout his poetry. This can also be seen in howl, where he speaks of ‘the best minds of his generation being destroyed’ by the fact that they are caught in the middle of such a condition and are driven insane by it. In a Supermarket in California, we can also see a glimmer of this theme surfacing when Ginsberg and Whitman are walking through the isles of the store and tasting the food yet “never passing the cashier” (Ginsberg 29). This depicts the beats concept of what it means to be a bum and live both inside and outside of the system or their continual strive to try and achieve a lifestyle like this.
Kerouac distracts Ginsberg from his dark thoughts and observations when he points out a large sunflower that is bent over and almost dead. At this point of the poem we are introduced to two other predominant themes in Ginsberg’s work. First we are confronted with the image of something that is once again made to be seen as so out of place, or finding something in a place that one would not expect to find it. In A Supermarket in California Ginsberg ‘meets’ two figures, that of Whitman and Lorca. These are the historical figures of two past poets that greatly influenced Ginsberg, yet he runs into them in a supermarket. The absurdity of the context of the encounter only further emphasises the contrast of realities that he tries to depict. In Sunflower Sutra, he comes across a sunflower in an unlikely place also; it is amongst the trash and ruin that litters the industrial landscape, in a place that doesn’t seem to encourage life. Here we are made aware that Ginsberg is not thrown back because of the size of the sunflower, but rather by its ability to endure in such a harsh environment (Davis et al). This is a direct symbol of the intrinsic value that Ginsberg see’s in mankind and mans ability to endure even though civilisation has gone to hell, he depicts a very hopeful symbol of man with this representation.
At this point of the poem Ginsberg is also reminded of the visions that he had had when he was younger. A vision where he said he had heard the voice of Blake reading his poem “ah, sunflower” to him (Davis et al). Here he is referencing one of the most influential and artistic moments in his life and he later tries to recreate with the use of drugs. Visions such as this must have been very important to Ginsberg as he also writes poems like A Supermarket in California, which is based on the very same context. In Howl he also makes constant references to such visions and even hearing the voice of God. Ginsberg then continues the reference of his vision of hearing Blake’s voice by remembering the time that he had spent in New York (Davis et al). He paints a picture of this memory, by creating imagery of all the pollution and corruption that he observed in his time there. In this way he manages to continue Blake’s use of modernism but then go further by showing how notions such as these are destroyed in the light of what the modern world.
In the first line Ginsberg uses the locomotive to represent the industrial revolution, but he slowly changes the symbol of the locomotive throughout the poem. In line 6 he uses the association of the locomotive as something that is powerful, strong and forever moving forward to reference the objectives of the beats (Davis et al). It also appears to be a symbol of the long lost American dream, where as at first it seemed to be something progressive and exciting, is now met with the reality of being seen as having lost its way and become something a lot more sinister and bleak (Davis et al). Ginsberg also questions the flowers sense of identity when he exclaims “oh poor dead flower? When did you forget you were a flower? When did you decide you were an impotent dirty old loco-motive?” (Ginsberg 27). Ginsberg makes a strong statement where he proclaims the sorrow of man losing his identity in the false pursuit of a perverse American dream. Something of inherent value still exists in man, yet he is tattered and full of grim. The Supermarket also comes to represent something perverse and lost within the American dream and Ginsberg’s attempt to still try find beauty in it, yet all he finds is neon lights and capitalism. In this sense Sunflower Sutra is a much more positive poem and A Supermarket in California is more realistic and has a pessimistic undertone. It could be said that in A Supermarket in California, Ginsberg is shopping for a glimpse of hope and yet is unable to find any in that particular context, where as in Sunflower Sutra, he stumbles across that symbol of hope in a place he least expects it. This gives the idea that the value of man and hope is inherent rather than being a commodity that one can find within the realms of capitalism and industry. This is a predominant ideology of the beats and is constantly referenced in Howl.
Sunflower Sutra ends differently to A Supermarket in California and Howl. Perhaps it is because of the context in which the theme of crisis and recovery is discussed as a whole. It ends with Ginsberg being on a high and having a realisation of hope and his place in history to call forward people into seeing what he sees and recovering something that has been so far lost in mans attempt to conquer the world. He describes the sunflower as being a “Scepter at his side” (Ginsberg 38) that he is planning on using as a weapon rather than for its beauty (Davis et al). The tone that Ginsberg ends this poem with is that of a tone and theme which is at the core of the belief system of the beats. This is the vision of America that he realises at the end of the poem and what the beats try to achieve through their alternative lifestyles.
It is a vision of America as a new kind of locomotive and the transformation of the barren landscape that is desolate and corrupt becoming one that is more spiritual, natural and in essence a picture of beauty (Davis et al). Here we are given an image of the beats that does not just represent a group of misfits and outcasts who are overindulgent and ignorant, but rather as a group of prophets who long to turn America and its people back on track to realising the inherent potential that the land and they possess. This in essence is what the beats strive towards.
Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and other poems. Vol. 1. San Francisco: City Light Books, 1956.
Davis, Lane. Chazelle, Damien ed. “Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry Study Guide : Summary and Analysis of “Sunflower Sutra””. GradeSaver, 31 December 2009 Web. http://www.gradesaver.com/allen-ginsbergs-poetry/study-guide/section8/ 31 October 2013
Davis, Lane. Chazelle, Damien ed. “Allen Ginsberg’s Poetry Study Guide : Summary and Analysis of “A Supermarket in California””. GradeSaver, 31 December 2009 Web. http://www.gradesaver.com/allen-ginsbergs-poetry/study-guide/section7/ 31 October 2013.
Cite this Analysis of “Sunflower Sutra” by Allen Ginsberg
Analysis of “Sunflower Sutra” by Allen Ginsberg. (2016, Oct 27). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/sunflower-sutra-essay/