In a Harlem apartment in 1948, a 22-year-old Allen Ginsberg sat reading William Blake’s ‘Ah! Sunflower’ (1794), when a ‘deep earthen voice’ took over.<sup>1</sup> Ginsberg knew the voice was Blake’s. In Blake’s deeply spiritual poem, the sunflower is a metaphor for the soul seeking the afterlife, and it seemed to Ginsberg that Blake was, in fact, talking about him.<br><br>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’<sup>2</sup>. Ginsberg writes about this in ‘Sunflower Sutra’ (1955): ‘I rushed up enchanted— it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake—my visions—Harlem’<sup>3</sup>. <br><br>Ginsberg was a leading member of the Beat Generation, a movement of writers, musicians, and outsiders to mainstream America. Kerouac, a fellow ‘Beatnik’, described the Beats as ‘characters of special spirituality’ who lived ‘staring out of the dead wall window of our civilisation’.<sup>4</sup> This is the Beatnik voice: harshly realistic pessimism.<br><br>In ‘Sunflower Sutra’, the murky industrial world of postwar America has corrupted Blake’s sunflower, leaving it ‘dusty with the smut and smog and smoke’<sup>5</sup> in its eye. Ginsberg writes cynically about the ‘guts and innards’ of the city waste, the corpse-like decay into which it has fallen.<br><br>Yet Ginsberg 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’<sup>6</sup>. For Ginsberg, the Beat Generation could thrive as outsiders: Blakean sunflowers in a grimy railway yard, hopeful nature infiltrating the city.