I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and
sat down under the huge shade of a Southern
Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the
box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron
pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts
of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, sur-
rounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun
sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that
stream, no hermit in those mounts, just our-
selves rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums
on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray
shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting
dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust–
–I rushed up enchanted–it was my first sunflower,
memories of Blake–my visions–Harlem
and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes
Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black
treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the
poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel
knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck
and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the
and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset,
crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog
and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye–
corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like
a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face,
soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sun-
rays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried
wire spiderweb,
leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures
from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster
fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,
Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower O
my soul, I loved you then!
The grime was no man’s grime but death and human
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 protuber-
ance of artificial worse-than-dirt–industrial–
modern–all that civilization spotting your
crazy golden crown–
and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless
eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the
home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar
bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards
of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely
tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what
more could I name, the smoked ashes of some
cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the
milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs
& sphincters of dynamos–all these
entangled in your mummied roots–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!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your
grime, while you cursed the heavens of the rail-
road and your flower soul?
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 locomo-
tive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and
shade of a once powerful mad American locomo-
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck
it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul
too, and anyone who’ll listen,
–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 bles-
sed by our own seed & golden hairy naked ac-
complishment-bodies growing into mad black
formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our
eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive
riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sit-
down vision.

Berkeley, 1955

Analysis, meaning and summary of Allen Ginsberg's poem Sunflower Sutra

1 Comment

  1. Kayla Holliday says:

    Bringing “Sunflower Sutra” to Life
    The Ginsberg poem, “Sunflower Sutra” brings to light a very important and universal issue. Although it was written in the 1950’s it is still comparable to the here and now. When Ginsberg wrote this poem, it was the time of conservatives, consumerism, and strong morals. Ginsberg did not relate to such a culture and instead expressed himself through his poems, which blatantly rejected such outlooks on life. “Sunflower Sutra” is about the death of the inner beauty and spirit in one’s soul in relation to the destruction of nature and the realization that it is never too late to bring such creativity and beauty back to life.
    A “sutra” is actually a cable or a fiber line that holds something together. Ginsberg’s sutra is symbolically his sunflower, or realistically his hope and creativity. His personal sunflower represents the only beautiful thing left inside of him that holds his own life together. As he sits and gazes upon the steel machinery and locomotives he notices this dead, single, sunflower as “a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust”(lines 11-12). In his mind, this sunflower is a symbol of life, even though it is dead. Covered in the grime and dirt of the industry, this sunflower is slowly wilting away, allowing its outside “skin” to effect its inner beauty. Ginsberg later addresses this issue saying that “we’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside…” (lines 57-58).
    The locomotive and the industry discussed in this poem are only examples of the destruction that has taken its toll on the nature and beauty of our world. This began with the industrial revolution, when there was a noticeable shift in the use of technology and transportation (i.e. locomotives). This revolution demeaned nature and only worked for the benefits of enhancing the technology of the day. There was no consideration for nature or the beauty of the earth. This depressing view of industry is described as “….dead baby carriages, black treadles tires forgotten and retreaded, the poem of the river bank, condoms and pots, steel knives, nothing stainless….”(lines 16-17). The picture this paints is a picture of grime, dust and garbage.
    The sunflower initially stands defeated with “seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb, leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, [and] gestures from the sawdust root…” (lines 21-24). Its outer appearance seems to have made the sunflower hopeless and on the road to death, as we are on the road to death if we allow the industry and destruction of nature to get the best of us. But then comes the realization, that the sunflower is still standing and therefore “…[glorious] in [its] form!” (line 41). It is a beautiful realization to know that we can make a change by opposing the ways of the world and to focus on resurrecting beauty and creativity in our inner souls.
    By viewing the sunflower as an actual sunflower, and not a dead weed, hope starts to shine through Ginsberg’s words. The poem starts to sound more positive and upbeat starting in line forty as he discusses the beauty of the flower. The beauty of a sunflower should not be underestimated because of its outward appearance, but should be judged but what it actually is, before it was affected by the industry and the dirt and dust. The problem is that Americans have chosen industry and technology over the sunflower, over life, and over beauty. We, as Americans, have forgotten that we are all sunflowers. Ginsberg asks us “…when did you forget you were a flower? When did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?…You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!” (lines 47-51). He wants us all to get in touch with our own personal sunflower and wants us to reject the culture of technology. In doing this we will be able to bring the beauty of nature and the creativity of our souls back to life.
    This realization sparks a fight within Ginsberg’s soul; a fight to beat the culture and to resist conformity. He automatically “[grabs] up the skeleton thick sunflower and [sticks] it by [his] side like a scepter, and [delivers his] sermon to [his] soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen…” He wants to make a change in the world and the only way he can hold his own in this fight is by reviving his inner sunflower.
    In relation to today, we can do small things to revive our sunflowers and improve the beauty of the world around us. We can do such things as recycle, walk more than we drive, use appropriate waste bins, plant a tree, and/or buy recycled items. In doing this we are doing our part in restoring our nature that was once precious. This whole poem is the process of the resurrection and revivification of the sunflower that represents inner beauty and nature, the conclusion is his realization that we can still fight against the views of the world and make a change.

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