‘Sunflower Sutra’

Ginsberg’s ‘Sunflower Sutra’ bursts with a range of vivid imagery, connecting the pastoral with a landscape of urban decay. Like ‘Howl’, this poem reveals spiritual conscience within a dejected environment which would conventionally appear incongruous with spirituality; rather than in a Garden of Eden, Allen and Jack are sat amongst “gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery”[1]. A growth of consciousness and elevation in tone occurs throughout the poem, which is initially tethered in personal anecdote and describes the two men “rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums”, then moves to encapsulate a sense of the collective, affirming “we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside” thus evoking a broader universal narrative. Though “the dress of dust”[2] can blanket individual experience, the word “dress” bringing with it connotations of pretension or artificiality, it is posited that when united, humankind is not comprised of “smut and smog and smoke” but a pure, sacred essence permitting creative authenticity, unearthed throughout the poem’s progression. ‘Sunflower Sutra’ pays attention to the falsity of surface appearances versus the truer realm of soul, where people are more united, as in Allen and Jack sharing “the same thoughts of the soul”. Such a concern with the pretension of peripheries and need to move beyond the external is reiterated in the affirmation “we’re not our skins of grime”, favouring the inner above the outer self: a contentious statement in a culture whose ill-founded obsession with appearances is revealed in the debris of its “artificial worse-than-dirt” junkyard.

Ginsberg uses disorderly syntax like asyndeton to toy with the theme of madness, as if attempting to undermine the authority of his poetic voice and instead communicate a sense of unrestrained outburst, while also providing just enough lucidity to create an intricacy and intelligence which demands further analysis. Such an effect, used in both ‘Howl’ and ‘Kaddish’, is clear in the final lines of ‘Sunflower Sutra’; the decrease in the number of conjunctions used culminates in an arresting image of the “mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision”, giving a sense of the speaker’s train of thought spinning wildly out of control. To some extent, this image also trivialises the poem itself, reducing it to a “mad vision” whose hectic stream of impressions viscerally generates the effect of madness. This mounting intensity echoes the mood which evolves in the third section of ‘Howl’, in which the speaker reiterates his solidarity with the mentally ill Carl Solomon. At the close of ‘Sunflower Sutra’, Ginsberg comments on how the scene is “spied on by our eyes”, drawing attention back to the significance of subjectivity and personal impression. This humanises his narrative by bringing back our focus to the concrete presence of spectators Allen and Jack, yet also alludes to the transcendent through communicating a sense of rapturous celebration of the process of sight, and human ability to not only be aware of our world, but to recognise and appreciate this awareness.

Use of the word ‘sutra’ in the poem’s title yokes together Eastern and Western modes of thought, deriving from the Sanskrit word “sutra” meaning thread or rule. As sutra describes a rule or aphorism within Sanskrit literature, its inclusion in the titling of Ginsberg’s poetry implicitly overturns the authoritative precedence of ordinary codes of rule which govern Western discourse. His project to “bring Hindu and Buddhist practices into the American mainstream” is clearly exposed here, linked to his identity as “a new kind of Jew: one who […] actively created a more complex identity than modern society had previously allowed.”[3] Like much of Ginsberg’s poetry, ‘Sunflower Sutra’ alludes to the active role that the poem plays in the process of spiritual revelation. What is first cast as a “dead gray shadow” has life breathed into it through the process of being poetically depicted, evolving into “a perfect beauty of a sunflower”. As poetry re-injects life into this sunflower, it holds the implicit power of re-igniting spiritual conscience in a deadened universe. Such a wasted state of modernity is implied by the motif of the “dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive”. The automobile as a symbol of US identity recalls Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in which cars, flashy embodiments of motorised, industrialised consumerism, are central to characters’ downfall. The dialogue that Ginsberg strikes with Fitzgerald is enhanced by ash-related imagery in ‘Sunflower Sutra’, recalling Gatsby’s valley of ashes. Parallels can also be drawn between ‘Sunflower Sutra’ and Whitman’s ‘A Passage to India’, as both express “the importance of returning to and acknowledging humanity’s roots through the characterization of the Eastern and Western worlds juxtaposed against each other”[4]. Whitman’s poem, “reverent and hopeful” like Ginsberg’s, pays homage to the natural world and seeks peace in “the infinite greatness of the past”[5]. We can recognise how Ginsberg’s drawing a folkloric sense of spirituality from within a contemporary landscape is intimately connected with past poetic tradition, implying its position beyond time and subsequent appeal for future readers.

‘A Supermarket in California’

The power of Ginsberg’s allusion towards and ultimate achievement of transcendence in his work is heightened by his engagement with the broader tradition of US literature. While flouting convention, Ginsberg acknowledges a debt to past US poets who have inspired him: most notably, Whitman. Allusions to the discourse between poets across generations in their shared attempt to “make the private world public”[6] suggest a historical as well as personal value to the truths struck at in Ginsberg’s poetry. Nowhere in his work is the consideration of trans-epochal emotional and thematic ties between his own artistry and that of his literary predecessors more evidently demonstrated than in the poem ‘A Supermarket in California’. Apostrophe is employed throughout this poem as he directly addresses the long-deceased Whitman in a spirit of admiration, camaraderie, and play which unifies the writers as friendly companions.

It is fitting that the poem is set in a supermarket – a symbol of consumerism and capitalism, of a society in which the commodification of goods results in an amplified choice of consumer products, but a widespread sense of spiritual confusion as worship of the material replaces religious faith and community bonds. In ‘A Supermarket in California’, “everyday matters are evidenced with a critical and transcendentalist approach.” David Wills comments:

The Beats and the Transcendentalists came one hundred years apart, but were surprisingly similar literary and cultural movements, protesting against tradition, conformity, commercialism, industrialisation, and urbanisation. Both sets of poets and writers tended to portray the wilderness as divine, contrasted against the gaudy human nightlife of the city. And both groups of poets wrote in times when danger loomed: Whitman before and during the Civil War, and the Beats following World War II, when the threat of nuclear war became very real.[7]

Despite a general Beat mood of disenfranchisement with the “gaudy human nightlife of the city”, in ‘A Supermarket in California’, access to the kind of enlightened experience that would be attainable in “the wilderness” doesn’t require leaving the supermarket environment. Rather, it can be achieved even from between its aisles if one knows where to look. That the supermarket which opposes spirituality through embodying the corrupt values of superficiality, commodification, and materialism is here home to a pilgrimage of poetic “odyssey”[8], fights against preconceived ideas about spiritual revelation, even contesting other voices within the Beat movement. For example, Kerouac’s seminal text On the Road is driven forwards by a relentless hunger for speed, symbolised by the motif of the road, Sal and Dean’s recourse to constant motion acting as a quest to out-run the soul-destroying conformity of the static suburban American Dream that mainstream society would have them follow. In contrast, Ginsberg’s work finds a potential for spiritual fulfilment within and around symbols of cultural corruption, such as the supermarket, which are inimical to the realisation of Whitman’s Transcendentalist values. It may be in part owing to this sense of spatial paradox that a tone of confusion is seeded in the poem, a lively and playful energy sustained as we are accosted by the juxtaposition of the miraculous with repeated tethers to arbitrary realities which appear to frustrate this effect, leading the speaker to “feel absurd”[9] in entertaining notions of transcendence. Unlike Kerouac, Ginsberg does not propose running across the continent, but rather turning to the inner self to unearth spiritual truth. His suggestion is that through looking within, one can uncover universal wisdom and a connection with figures like Whitman from America’s past who possess the capacity to guide an alienated individual in the twentieth century.

In dissecting the relationship between Walt Whitman and the writing of Ginsberg, Wills asserts:

Whitman’s American vision was one of criticism yet optimism, rather than the Beat philosophy of laying back and making their own little space in an essentially doomed society, while looking back to the past and lamenting the losses of freedoms and the rolling tide of development that led to the crushing weight of an uncaring world.[10]

Yet I would argue that contrary to Wills’ assertion, ‘A Supermarket in California’ presents a world-view which is far from “doomed”, Ginsberg calling upon Whitman not to mourn the extinction of his Transcendentalist ideals but to resuscitate them.  Though able to acknowledge negative forces at play in society, Ginsberg overturns their power with the light of hope, setting him apart from bleaker voices of his era and movement such as Bukowski, whose comparable poetry touches similar themes to negative conclusion. Ginsberg does not simply mourn what has been lost since the time of Whitman’s pre-industrial optimism but gleans from Whitman a spirit able to face modernity with forward-thinking power. Poems like ‘A Supermarket in California’ have continued resonance as they reconfigure Whitman’s ideological legacy for the eyes of a disenfranchised contemporary readership facing the political instabilities of 1950s America, with post-war communist suspicions and the looming threat of nuclear war. Though on the one hand markedly of its era, Ginsberg’s ‘A Supermarket in California’ generates a timeless rhetorical appeal to the discourse between past and present in the voices of the speaker and the imagined Whitman. The speaker entreats Whitman to help both him and the reader make sense of America’s contemporary state in relation to its history, attempting to revive, or recreate a new set of values as the conventional “American Dream” has transpired to be a bitterly disappointing illusion. The question posed “where are we going, Walt Whitman?”[11] is in one sense literal as the pair plan their stroll; it also metaphorically alludes to the future of culture and hope offered by literary exploration for subsequent generations as a pathway to break from restrictions of mainstream thought.

One of the poem’s most charming and quirky features is how it coalesces the arbitrary with the magical or transcendent. An example of this is in the exclamation “what peaches and what penumbras!”[12]; a peach, something tangible and sensory, is placed beside a far more abstract concept, a “penumbra” – the area of partial shade cast by an opaque object, a term used in relation to lunar eclipses. A supermarket aisle, arguably the most humdrum setting imaginable, here becomes colluded with concepts of astronomical gravitas. The word “penumbra” directly corresponds to the overarching narrative of spiritual light dominating Earthly forces which shine through Ginsberg’s poetry, taking its origins from the Latin “paene” meaning “almost” and “umbra” meaning “shadow”. The evocation of an “almost shadow” is overall a lighter image than that merely of a shadow, necessarily implying the presence of light alongside partial darkness. We are at once made aware of full clarity being obscured and pointed towards the possibility of illumination, a physical allegory for the process of spiritual epiphany that can occur through engaging with poetry. Similarly, the description of how “trees add shade to shade”[13] later in the poem gives an effect of layering, connoting a subtle gradient of tones, rather than stark blackness.

In ‘Howl’, the vivid portrayal of minds “starving hysterical naked” and the third section’s mantra-like exclamations of holiness infuse its mood of spiritual uprising with strength and even a sense of rage; in contrast, ‘A Supermarket in California’ generates a tone of tentative questioning and is riven with ambiguities. One example of this is how the theme of light is exhibited in diverse forms ranging from the natural source of the “full moon” – a galactic entity that was also linked by Ginsberg with conceptions of individual identity, as he urged his supporters to “follow their inner moonlight” – to the artificially glimmering promise of the supermarket’s “neon” colouring, and gleam of its “brilliant stacks of cans”. These latter descriptions carry with them a falsity, indicating the dangerous myth perpetuated within 1950s US culture that the “hungry fatigue”[14] of man’s spiritual needs could be satiated through consumer purchase, a “game of consuming items that can only cover physical needs (like hunger) in order to satisfy emotional needs”[15]. It is only through harnessing awareness of this fallacy promoted by the voices of mainstream media and advertising, and engaging with the alternative pathway to fulfilment presented by art and poetry, that one can avoid falling prey to it. Tellingly, the poem closes with “lights out in the houses”[16] – the insincerity of electric light finally dimmed at the end of the day to clear space for a silent, deeper place of spiritual understanding. While the poem’s final state of “lights out in the houses” could be perceived as an image of darkness, it in fact symbolises peace as the artificiality of electric light has been turned off to make way for a purer spiritual contemplative space. ‘A Supermarket in California’ was supposedly composed following a psychedelic drug trip that Ginsberg took in a supermarket one night. The impact of psychedelic experimentation on one’s perception can be seen as a metaphor for how poetry too affects understanding of reality. Using psychedelics and reading poetry are comparable experiences in that they both permit the ability to perceive ordinary reality through an alternative lens. While it is questionable whether tripping genuinely provides a higher perspective or simply gives the illusion of transcendence, the function of psychedelic drugs in offering space to step outside the mundane processes of everyday perception – a project also at the heart of the practice of poetry – paves the way to critique social values. Such critique requires a level of psychological distance from one’s surroundings and their associated codes of value, possible only when mainstream convention is held up for external scrutiny. Ginsberg’s warning against consumerism remains sadly highly pertinent in the twenty-first century, arguably even more so than in 1955 when ‘A Supermarket in California’ was published. In a climate of the democratically-elected presidency of Donald Trump, a figure who enshrines the USA’s cultural valuing of financial success and capitalist expansionism above humane ethics, the need to detach from these tenets of US life and rediscover authentic human connection in a “dreaming stroll”[17] as outlined by Ginsberg is more pressing than ever before.

‘Song’

 ‘Song’, a meditation upon the vulnerability of the human condition, and the simultaneous pressure and relief of romantic and sexual union, differs markedly from the other poems looked at in this dissertation. Its brevity of lines conveys a humility of tone which contributes towards its opening a space of peace. These short lines alternate as if sustaining cautious equilibrium with one another in illustration of the notion of contrasts at the poem’s centre, building a majesty and beauty which are both aesthetic and conceptual. ‘Song’ both visually approaches weight and light, and addresses these themes metaphorically. The depiction of its central subject – love – carefully balances heaviness and lightness. While love is introduced as “the weight of the world”, there is an irony to this depiction; many of the poem’s other elements, such as the delicate brevity of its lines, its intermittent anaphoric playfulness, and images such as “the warm bodies/ shine together/ in the darkness”[18], convey the quality of lightness, which opposes love’s initial definition as “weight”. Up until its final stanza, the first person singular is avoided, another factor which distinguishes ‘Song’ from many of Ginsberg’s poems, in which pronouns “I” or “me”, bringing with them a sense of the anecdotal and of personal emotional investment, tend to appear near the start of the poem, intermingling subjectivity with wider concerns.

Ginsberg commented that “there’s a tendency to exaggerate the strangeness of the mind, and to over-stylize it, and over-rush it, […] rather than resting with it, or resting with what’s there.”[19] He described paying close attention to one’s immediate surroundings as an antidote to the danger of overly self-involved writing. This fed into his appreciation of the Japanese haiku form, which gives a detailed, impressionistic depiction of its subject, like how an impressionist painting approaches image, and of Williams’ poetry, which stresses the importance of rendering an image in its sensory forms. ‘Song’, perhaps more than any other of Ginsberg’s works, exhibits an intent to “rest with what’s there”, encapsulating great themes in a more compact form, one sentence often going over many short lines while in ‘Howl’, ‘Kaddish’, ‘Sunflower Sutra’ and ‘A Supermarket in California’, each line contains a flow of ideas.

The lines “and so must rest/ in the arms of love/ at last,/ must rest in the arms/ of love” seem particularly attuned with the melodic implications of the poem’s title, conveying a lullaby-like rhythm through repetition. Additionally, sibilance creates a soporific effect, and the exclusive use of monosyllabic words augments the delicacy of rhythm.  ‘Song’ at once nurtures a profound sense of intimacy, venturing into the private sphere as it exists “in dreams”, “in thought” and “in imagination”, and inhabits the universal. For example, when describing love’s dwelling in “the heart burning with purity”[20], this image is in one sense anatomical, “burning” conveying the tangible, fleshy notion of carnal desire, and grounding the image within that of a living, breathing human body. On another level, “the heart” hints at the core or crux of something, such as the human experience, reinforcing love to be something that “we” rather than “I” bear the weight of. ‘Song’ casts light onto universal traits of softness and vulnerability, deeply moving as it explores the tender aspect of Ginsberg’s spirituality. The sensitive essence that ‘Song’ uncovers contrasts harsher notes which emerge across Ginsberg’s poetry, providing a perspective crucial to encompass within investigation of his spiritual project.


[1] Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 19.

[2] Ibid., p. 20.

[3] Ariel, Yakov, ‘From a Jewish Communist to a Jewish Buddhist: Allen Ginsberg as a Forerunner of a New American Jew’, Religions 10(2), 100 (2019) https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10020100; Ibid.

[4] Beat Literature & the World, ‘A Comparison of Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman’, online blog posted by esprings, (7 November 2013) https://beatworldbeatitude.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/a-comparison-of-allen-ginsberg-and-walt-whitman/ [accessed 21 December 2018]

[5] Ibid.; Ibid.

[6] Columbia University online, C250, ‘Allen Ginsberg’ http://c250.columbia.edu/c250_celebrates/remarkable_columbians/allen_ginsberg.html [accessed 20 March 2019]

[7] Wills, David, ‘Whitman and the Beats’, Beatdom Vol. 1 p.  82-85, (2009) https://www.beatdom.com/Whitman_and_the_beats.htm , [accessed 28 January 2019] p. 83.

[8] Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 14.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] Wills, ‘Whitman and the Beats’, p. 83.

[11] Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 14.

[12] Ibid., p. 14.

[13] Ibid., pp. 14 – 15.

[14] Ibid., p. 14.; Ibid., p. 14.; Ibid., p. 14.

[15] San Cristóbal, María Margarita, ‘The Poem ‘A Supermarket in California’ Evidences how Self-identity is Commodified and Massified in Consumer Societies’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, Universidad de Concepción, Chile 2009)., pp. 7-8.

[16] Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 15.

[17] Ibid., p. 15.

[18] Ibid., p. 30; Ibid., p. 31.

[19] Ginsberg, Allen, Spiritual Poetics – 7, The Allen Ginsberg Project, (8 August 2011) https://allenginsberg.org/2011/08/spiritual-poetics-7/ [accessed 25 October 2018]

[20] Ginsberg, Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, p. 30; Ibid., p.30.