The Sunflowers have grown as tall as they are going to get this year. Many of them have lost their bright yellow petals and are leaning over in response to the weight of their heads. Their drooping indicates the final stages of their growth and the passing of the summer season.
It is perhaps because sunflowers are so noticeable on the landscape that they make ideal subjects for poetry.
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time, Who countest the steps of the Sun: Seeking after that sweet golden clime Where the traveler'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.
Blake was also a painter and printmaker and “Ah’ Sunflower” was a part of a collection of illustrated poems. The photo below was taken from the collection of Blake’s work at the Fitzwilliam Museum.
After looking at the illustration, I notice myself asking are questions like:
- What is the importance of this poem being in the middle of the illustration?
- What is it framed by another power about a Rose Tree and then a Lily?
- How do I feel when I read the poem as plain text, or within the illustration?
It is interesting that the poem feels different when you read it in plain text or within the etching.
Another poet that wrote about sunflowers is Kenneth W. Porter (1905-1981). Porter published “Sunflowers Over the Corn” in a 1935 issue of Poetry Magazine (2) Porter’s poetry incorporates both his experience in rural Kansas and his historical knowledge into verse about the land that he knew so well.
“Sunflowers Over the Corn”
Here where the fierce devouring Sun’s Arrows of burning gold beat down-- Unfenced by palisades of rain-- Through all the summer, skeletons Of corn, dust-grey and brittle brown, Lie on the ruinous battle-plain Which hordes like those of Timur hold, Equipped with massive flame-rayed shields Beaten from freshly-plundered gold: Vast armies of the Sun’s own flowers Flooding the wide-horizoned fields About the empty silo-towers
I am immediately struck by how Porter’s poetry feels very different from Blake’s. Porter’s imagery is aggressive and talks of battles and weaponry. Blake’s poem is soft and talks about desire and aspiring heavenward. Porter talks about shields and armies, while Blake talks about virgins and youth.
However, there seems to be some similarities between the poems. Both poems have this undercurrent of death or loss. Blake directly talks about arising from the grave, while Porter talks about skeletons that lie on the battle-plain.
In writing about these poems I am following Margarita Engel’s suggestion that we start asking, “How does this poem make you feel?” Instead of “What does it mean?” Because of this shift, I am not getting paralyzed by analysis. Instead, I am sitting with this poem and seeing where it takes me.
I would be interested to hear your reactions to these poems. Feel free to share below. .