Upon examining the poetry of Walt Whitman, and comparing it with the work of the writers of the Beat Generation, the profound influence of Whitman’s works on the Beats becomes apparent. In both structure and content, Whitman’s work is synchronous with some of the main concerns of the beat writers, as the beats and Whitman were seeking enlightenment in similar ways through similar experiences and in the same locations. This is especially true in comparing the work of Whitman with the work of Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s work imitates that of Whitman’s in several ways, and this is first evident through the strikingly similar structure of the stanzas of their poetry, and the way they both sometimes embark on tangents in their writing that reveal their streams of consciousness and the seeking of enlightenment.
The overlap between Whitman and Ginsberg is evident specifically, in Whitman’s “Passage to India” and Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra”. In both of these works, the speakers romanticize the idea of returning to the appreciation of the beauty of nature as it is observed being juxtaposed with the rapidly expanding progress of industrialization and modernization of the western world. “I see over my own continent the Pacific railroad surmounting every barrier, I see continual trains of cars winding along the Platte carrying freight and passengers, I hear the locomotives rushing and roaring, and the shrill steam-whistle, I hear the echoes reverberate through the grandest scenery in the world,”(Whitman). Throughout this poem, Whitman uses the locomotive and the railroads in California to symbolize the modernization and industrialization of the western world. Through doing so he acknowledges, and even stands in awe at the progress of humanity. However, the main point of Whitman’s poem is the importance of returning to and acknowledging humanity’s roots through the characterization of the Eastern and Western worlds juxtaposed against each other.” In the Old World the east the Suez canal, The New by its mighty railroad spann’d The seas inlaid with eloquent gentle wires; Yet first, to sound and ever sound , the cry with thee O soul, The Past! the Past! the Past! The Past- the dark unfathom’d retrospect! The teeming gulf-the sleepers and the shadows! The past- the infinite greatness of the past! For what is the present after all but a growth out of the past? (As a projectile form’d, impell’d passing a certain line, still keeps on, So the present, utterly form’d, impell’d by the past.)” (Whitman).
Just like Whitman, Ginsberg uses the image of the locomotive in his poem “Sunflower Sutra” to represent the industrialized western world and to highlight the beauty he finds in a sunflower or the more simplistic things of the past that one might overlook in the industrialized world. The title of his poem in itself also alludes to Sanskrit, and to the return to the values of the Old World, or the east which is exactly what Whitman is doing with his poem as well. “Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?” (Ginsberg). The image Ginsberg creates here suggests the forgetting of ones roots as he suggests this sunflower has as it has died, and lost its identity in the shadow of this locomotive. This is comparable to what Whitman does in his poem, as he suggests that the erection of the new westernized society has made the old world obsolete in the eyes of many.
The connection that is drawn between these two poems demonstrates the profound influence Walt Whitman had on Allen Ginsberg and consequently the entire movement of the beat generation. These poets both sought what they were looking for in life in the Eastern World, and in the beauty of the natural world as it was before it was affected by the consequences of technology and modernization. Both of these poets express similar values and suggest the return to eastern ways of thinking, and appreciating the roots of the old world and how the birth of the new world consequently came about because of it.