SUNFLOWER SKELETONS by Allen Ginsberg

The Sunflower is a metaphor for the soul seeking the afterlife…

SUNFLOWER SKELETONS by Allen Ginsberg featuring Derrick Jenkins & Florian Eisentraut
Photo by Uka Meissner deRuiz / C.C.U.

The SUNFLOWER SKELETON project features lesser known poetry by Allen Ginsberg and brings together two works of especial interest as they form the bookends to his long career – SUNFLOWER SUTRA, written in 1955, one of his early startling poems and THE BALLAD OF THE AMERICAN SKELETON, written in 1995, is his last fully realized project; a collaboration with Paul McCartney and Philip Glass.

Allen Ginsberg was one of the founding fathers of a major literary movement popularly known as the Beat Generation and is considered one of the 20th century’s most revolutionary and influential poets.  He defies classification; poet, musician, songwriter, photographer, champion of human and civil rights, world traveler, spiritual seeker, political gadfly.

Thanks to the controversy surrounding his early extended work HOWL – which depicts the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity – Allen Ginsberg quickly became a galleon figure of the Beat Generation. His name and face was recognizable to millions who had never read so much as a single word of his poetry. Like Walt Whitman before him, the foundation of Ginsberg’s work was the notion that one’s individual thoughts and experiences resonated among the masses illustrating his idea that democracy begins with the raising of a single voice.

In 1948, author Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” to characterize an anti-conformist youth movement in New York; a literary movement that brought together a group of writers whose work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. The bulk of their work was published and popularized throughout the 1950s. The central elements of Beat culture are the rejection of economic materialism and sexual repression, the opposition to militarism, the acceptance of Eastern religions, the experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and offering explicit portrayals of the human condition.

SUNFLOWER SUTRA – Legend has it, that while sitting in a Harlem apartment in 1948, the 22-year-old Allen Ginsberg experienced an auditory hallucination and heard the voice of William Blake while reading the ancient poet’s deeply spiritual poem AH! SUNFLOWER (1794).  In what is one of the most important artistic moments in Ginsburg’s life, he perceives the ‘deep earthen voice’ of Blake revealing to him that ‘the sunflower is a metaphor for the soul seeking the afterlife’.

A few years later, while whiling away time in a railway yard with his friend Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg encounters his sunflower again growing ‘on top of a pile of ancient sawdust’. Ginsberg writes about this in SUNFLOWER SUTRA (1955): ‘I rushed up enchanted— it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem’.

In SUNFLOWER SUTRA, the murky industrial world of postwar America with its violence, poverty and consumerism, has corrupted Blake’s sunflower, leaving it ‘dusty with the smut and smog and smoke’ in its eye. Ginsberg writes cynically about the ‘guts and innards’ of the city waste, the corpse-like decay into which it has fallen. Yet he also draws inspiration from this ‘perfect beauty’ of a sunflower’s resilience amidst the ‘skin of machinery’, since, in his Harlem vision, Blake had shown him that he too was a sunflower: ‘We’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside’. For Ginsberg, the Beat Generation could thrive as outsiders: Blakean sunflowers in a grimy railway yard, hopeful nature infiltrating the city.

The Romantic poets prophesied the pending doom of growing industrialism contrasted with the natural beauty and order of the world. Ginsberg sees himself, in the line of Romantic poets, as a prophet whose job it is to show this beauty to a country that has become rotten at its core. The sunflower is a mirror to the condition of the American society that has been tarnished by its people but yet holds the capacity to face the sun each morning and become its beautiful self again.  He gives the reader a glimpse of hope. The sunflower represents America, a land once filled with the promise of progress and advancement and with its core values – freedom of expression, progressive political and social thought – still contains the inner form of beauty.

As a member of the Beat poetry movement that raged through America during the ’40s and ’50s, the creative fury and passion of Allen Ginsberg was a huge influence on the rock and roll acts that followed. Throughout his long career, Ginsberg was keenly aware of the power of music and sought the association with generationally key musicians like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and The Clash. His aim was to use music as the candy-coated bullet to see his poetry and ideas for social and political transformation reach the younger generation.

Ginsburg wrote the exemplary, angry political jeremiad THE BALLAD OF THE AMERICAN SKELETONS amid the murky social climate of mid-nineties America, publishing it in 1995.  The poem about 66 skeletons representing American culture and hegemony quickly resulted in a musical collaboration with Paul McCartney, Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye, David Mansfield, Marc Ribot and was Ginsberg’s final 1996 recorded release; a mere nine months before his death. There is a macabre poignancy with the theme & image of skeletons when one considers how close the Beat-&-Beyond icon was to becoming one.

Despite nearing the end of his life, Ginsberg’s determination for truth and love above all else clearly prevailed, leading to the poet’s pursuit of performance wherever he could find it. Film director Gus van Sant created a music video of THE BALLAD OF THE AMERICAN SKELETONS which received highly publicized and much-coveted rotation on all of the television music channels – making Allen Ginsberg the only seventy-year-old, besides Tony Bennett, to ever be played on MTV.

Long after succumbing to liver cancer in 1997, his life and writings continue to be of great interest today. The majority of his books remain in print and new volumes continue to be published posthumously. Universities offer Ginsberg and Beat Generation courses.

DARK MONDAY @ MERLIN is a FREE Online Event sponsored by the Staatministerin für Kultur und Medien in cooperation with MERLIN – Kulturzentrum and DAZ – Deutsch Amerikanisches Zentrum.

To watch the performance please go to the MERLIN Youtube channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC9UuC5w2G-YFIub1VyYnihw

The presentation will be broadcast on Monday, June 7 at 20:00 hrs and the link will remain accessible.

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