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This 1954 Allen Ginsberg poem from Howl and Other Poems (City Lights, 1956) and Collected Poems: The Green Automobile (1953-1954) feels like a direct ancestor of the poet's cosmic, cataclysmic 1955 "Sunflower Sutra" (also in Howl and Other Poems as well as many other Ginsberg collections). If you haven't read the latter poem, please go check it out now. It's no longer available on E2 for copyright reasons, but try either the previously mentioned Pocket Poets book or maybe Illuminated Poems, illustrated by Eric Drooker, which I love. I've written about the symbolism of "Sunflower Sutra" in Two Sunflower Poems (shameless plug) but there's something weird and empty about reading scholarly analysis when you haven't read the work it discusses, especially when the work is as transcendent as "Sunflower Sutra".

But back to "In Back of the Real". You can read it as an outline for "Sunflower Sutra" --- the setting is the same, a railway yard in San Jose, California. The subject is the same: a sunflower. Even the major contrast of the poem --- between the sunflower's organic, naturalistic beauty and the harsh urban, industrial setting --- is the same. The difference is that "In Back of the Real" is mostly descriptive, with only hints, in the last stanza, of the writer's feelings toward the flower and in particular the transcendental philosophical revelations he experiences in response to the sight of the dirtied sunflower rising out of the wasteland around it. For more of the latter, you really should read "Sunflower Sutra".

One last feature of this poem to note, and one I'm not exactly sure where to go with, is the "Real" of its title. For me this immediately evokes another Ginsberg poem, "The Lion For Real", a surrealistic fable about a lion (or perhaps a vision of a lion) in the poet's home that no one believes. The connection for me is that Ginsberg wrote "Sunflower Sutra" (and quite possibly "In Back of the Real" as well) in response to a vision of literary lion William Blake reading his poem "Ah! Sun-flower". I like to imagine that "The Lion For Real" is Ginsberg's retelling of this inspirational incident, and that the "Real" is, in fact, artistic inspiration, or perhaps Art itself. That's just my interpretation, mind you --- I'm a big fan of authorial intent and don't like to ascribe my thoughts to the artists whose work provokes them, especially since I could be way off the mark.

In back of the real

railroad yard in San Jose
     I wandered desolate
in front of a tank factory
     and sat on a bench
near the switchman's shack

A flower lay on the hay on
     the asphalt highway
---the dread hay flower
     I thought---It had a
brittle black stem and
     corolla of yellowish dirty
spikes like Jesus' inchlong
     crown, and a soiled
dry center cotton turf
     like a used shaving brush
that's been lying under
     the garage for a year

Yellow, yellow flower, and
     flower of industry,
tough spiky ugly flower,
     flower nonetheless,
with the form of the great yellow
     Rose in your brain!
This is the flower of the World.

---Allen Ginsberg, San Jose, 1954

CST Approved

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