Ah! Sun-flower

Afternoon” by Philip Gladstone

Ah! Sun-flower


Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow
Arise from their graves and aspire
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Ah Sunflower” is a poem written by the English poet William Blake. It was published as part of his collection Songs of Experience in 1794Ed Sanders of The Fugs set the poem to music and recorded it on The Fugs First Album in 1965. For the passing of the 2nd millennium British composer Jonathan Doveset the text of “Ah, Sunflower” and two other poems by Blake (“Invocation” and “The Narrow Bud Opens Her Beauties To The Sun”) in his piece “The Passing of the Year” (2000), a song cycle for double chorus and piano. In 2002 the Canadian sisters Kate and Anna McGarrigle wanted to record Ed Sanders’ setting in French; they asked Philippe Tatartcheff to translate the poem, only to find the words no longer scanned with the tune. So they composed a new tune which accommodated both languages. That appeared the following year on their album La vache qui pleure in both English and French recordings. (From Wikipedia)

Male Nudes with Sunflowers” by Sheri Larsen

While reading Where the Heart Beats by Kay Larson (see my post Where the Heart Beats), I came across an interesting passage about Allen Ginsberg, who was a longtime fan of William Blake.  In his Harlem apartment in 1948, Ginsberg was masturbating while reciting the above poem, but “the poem’s elusive heart was not revealing itself.”  Then he heard a voice, which he believed was either Blake or God from the “Ancient of Days” intoning their words and revealing the meaning of these words.  According to Larson, Ginsberg saw the solidity of the world seem to flicker and go transparent. In an interview in 1995, Ginsberg stated, “And I was living (in 1948) in Harlem, East Harlem, New York, on the sixth floor of a tenement. There was a lot of theology books around, in an apartment that I had rented from a theology student-friend, so I was reading a lot of Plato’s Phaedrus, St John of the Cross…and (William) Blake. And I had the sudden… reading “The Sick Rose” and “The Sunflower”, I had the odd sensation of hearing Blake’s voice outside of my own body, a voice really not too much unlike my own when my voice is centered in my sternum, maybe a latent projection of my own physiology, but, in any case, a surprise, maybe a hallucination, you can call it, hearing it in the room, Blake reciting it, or some very ancient voice of the Ancient of Days reciting, “Ah Sunflower…” So there was some earthen-deep quality that moved me, and then I looked out the window and it seemed like the heavens were endless, or the sky was endless, I should say.”   The vision continued to unfold over the next few days.  The poem awakened a deeper “real universe,” a cosmic consciousness for Ginsberg, which he saw everywhere he looked.  Though he tried to invoke the experience again, he was never able to do so. (Probably because he did not have the correct sequence of drugs or alcohol again, but who knows.)  The point is that the poem revealed something to Ginsberg.  Something that we may never fully understand.

The experience my have inspired a later poem by Ginsberg published in 1955. 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. Ginsberg describes the fall of a mighty the sunflower. Once a bright yellow beacon of life, it now is “broken like a battered crown.” Having been covered by the dirt and grime of industry, by human “ingenuity,” this sunflower is really representing a demise in humanity. Rather than choosing nature as a prime example for life, choosing the “perfect beauty of a sunflower,” we have chosen industry and technology, and have forgotten that we are flowers. Ginsberg berates the dust and grime which have rained down from the locomotives onto “my sunflower O my soul” and wonders “when did you forget you were a flower?” This poem really is not about a flower, but the tragedy of losing one’s inner beauty, the vivacity and brightness which makes one shine.

Sunflower Sutra

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,
surrounded 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 ourselves
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, sunrays
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 protuberance
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
railroad 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 locomotive?
the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and
shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
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 blessed
by our own seed & golden hairy naked
accomplishment-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
sitdown vision.
          Allen Ginsberg

          Berkeley, 1955

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

9 responses to “Ah! Sun-flower

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