Ginsberg’s poem “Sunflower Sutra” is a romantic affirmation set against the disintegration of culture in America in the 1950’s. The poem attempts to simultaneously exalt an idea of beauty and spirituality while condemning the emptiness and American materialism. The way that this theme is most obviously expressed in the poem is through Ginsberg’s use of imagery. the sunflower itself rises out of a trash-heap that is composed 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” (Ginsberg). The absolute waste that is depicted by Ginsberg’s description of the trash-heap is symbolic of the poet’s vision of American society. The sunflower is a symbol of hope that a true sense of religious and artistic vision can be gleaned out of the waste of American materialism and the preoccupation with industry and manufacturing that has created, in Ginsberg’s view, an empty wasteland of trash and soiled dreams. The tone of the poem is exalted and hopeful despite its imagery of chaos and disintegration, as though Ginsberg wants the reader to understand that spiritual revelation and truth can grow out of any kind of soil. Ginsberg’s dissatisfaction with America is largely based on what he views as America’s cultural resistance to artistic and spiritual revelation and growth.
The theme of waste and materialism is also present in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, which posits the idea of non-linear time as an “antidote” to the materialism and war that consumes Western society. Similarly, Frank O’Hara’s ““A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island” attempts to inject American culture with a sense of religiosity based in nature as a counterpoint to empty materialism. Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel” deals with the idea of religion and the supernatural in order to forward a theme of spiritual vision in contrast to the despair and skepticism of modern life. Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with my Father” explores the dimensions of illusion and reality in regard to love and death. This story, of all the reading material in this unit, seemed to me to be the most difficult to understand and I had a hard time relating to it, while I greatly enjoyed the theme of magic and the supernatural in Slaughterhouse Five and “The Magic Barrel.”