“We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.”
So ends Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra”. It is a poem about discovering a broken dead dusty old sunflower among the junk by a river, tin cans and “busted rusty iron” debris, “under the huge shade” of a locomotive. The poet has read about sunflowers, and they come to him in visions. And so this broken down dead old thing is a revelation to him: “it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake”.
The poet sees the sunflower for what it is: through the dirt and grime he sees the golden vision beneath, the form of the living flower. But the sunflower, broken and sad with dull smut, has forgotten itself, here among the boxcars by the river: “when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?” Ginsberg is talking about the flower, but also about himself, and the whole human race. “We’re golden sunflowers inside” but we turn ourselves into machines, slaves who believe that our value lies in the work we can do. Or who fail to “get ahead” (as some call it) and just sit sadly, accumulating the grime of modern life, like this old sunflower. Too often, we don’t see what we are inside, beneath the grime. Perhaps even less are we able to see the golden sunflower in the heart of another.
Look again at that final long line from the poem. The point isn’t just to see the golden sunflower inside each one of us, but also to stand back and see ourselves from a distance, from the outside, as black forms silhouetted against the fading light, amidst the gloom of dark modern machinery. We do not just exist as golden sunflowers, but also as shadows passing through material existence. Bodies. To gain a measure of peace, we must step outside ourselves once in a while, perhaps on a quiet evening, alone or with a friend on a riverbank, and take a look around, and by doing this catch a glimpse of ourselves, imagine and see (as we study the dark shapes around us) ourselves as we appear to the world, human bodies all alike in the grim passing-shadow machine-world that we inhabit day by day. We ourselves grey passing shadows, sweat and dirt of the world upon us, but with the form of the sunflower, the golden potential of the living human being. It is in the peaceful moments of reflection that our industrious “accomplishment-bodies” are transformed into the “mad black formal sunflowers” of the evening, and you realise, as you see yourself as the world sees you, as you see how the life inside you shapes the shadow that falls from your body onto the junk of the world, as you contemplate the mad living shadow-shapes of the spirit, your own spirit, that for all your machine-like existence, for all the worldly dust that clings and care that weighs upon you, you are capable of anything.