Power to the Flower

Like a pre-inked Hallmark greeting card, plants help us articulate what we struggle to express in words. Seeds speak eloquently of new beginnings, while the tree is a metaphor for steadfastness, dependability and strength.

Flowers connote beauty, fragility, impermanence. They are also powerfully symbolic of love and all its baggage. Now-obsolete flower ‘languages’ (a.k.a floriography) communicate something of the complexity of the human experience of love: constancy, remembrance, heartache, remorse, undying love, ardent desire, friendship, sincerity, pride, faithfulness – there was once a bouquet for each of these notions, and more. The association between flowers and love is too ancient to interrogate. But flowers are some of the most beautiful objects that exist, and love is the most beautiful human experience, so maybe it’s a no-brainer.

If flowers symbolise love, what does it mean to poke a carnation down the loaded barrel of a soldier’s gun, as one young man was photographed doing in 1967?

One of the standout images of the American antiwar movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Bernie Boston’s photograph is titled Flower Power. Today, ‘flower power’ sounds pretty silly, not only because it rhymes, but because it has been rendered virtually meaningless by overuse and flagrant misuse. Fashion magazines use the term often, to inform us that floral prints have made yet another comeback, and advertisements for horrible reproduction, ‘hippie’ party costumes have all but destroyed its original intent.

But before it was a hollow marketing cliché, Flower Power was a slogan with gravity – nay, a mantra – among the huge number of students and other activists who opposed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

The phrase was first voiced by poet Allen Ginsberg, in his 1965 essay ‘How to Make a March/Spectacle.’ In this, Ginsberg introduced the idea of using “masses of flowers” and other props to turn antiwar marches into parades, creating “a spectacle or theatre, rather than angry violence…. a way of communicating ideas.”[1]

In retrospect, it might seem a simple device, but the rationale was sophisticated and the effect quite radical. Protestors carried flowers and attempted to give them to the military, as in this photograph. As symbols of love, flowers carried by unarmed civilians were an analogical counterpart to the soldier’s gun that contrasted powerfully with the image of brutality represented in the State’s habitually overreactive military. The image of flower-proffering students made a provocative point about the peacefulness of their mode of activism, at the same time as it emphasised their demand for peace via the retraction of American soldiers from Vietnam. As props, flowers reminded protesters that in demonstrating they were also performing, and being seen. Most importantly, flowers helped to create an unexpected and visually dazzling spectacle that satisfied one of Ginsberg’s main objectives, which was to gain positive coverage for the antiwar movement in the mass media.

As a caricature of political demonstration, Flower Power also turned the spectre of the police response into a parody of itself – indeed, a spectacle, albeit one of violence and excess. As Ginsberg said of Bernie Boston’s photograph, “the authority of the Pentagon was deconstructed by one good-looking kid putting a flower in the barrel of the gun held by another good-looking kid in uniform. Everybody realized the Pentagon is an arbitrary authority.”[2]

The method of flower-toting protest expounded by Ginsberg soon became ubiquitous among antiwar demonstrators. Flower Power inspired a shift in the way protest was conducted that was to last the length of the Vietnam war and beyond.

Researching the Flower Power movement triggered a distant memory of a subversive plan I hatched (but unfortunately never executed) at the end of Year 12, long before I’d heard of Ginsberg and his floral activism. “Muck up day” is a widespread custom among students finishing school, but rather than hurl eggs at the boys across the oval, I had an altogether more ambitious proposal. First, I’d purchase many kilos of zinnia seeds. Then my friends and I would enter the school during the summer holidays (trespass is the word), strategically remove swathes of turf from the oval to spell a rude message that would be visible from the school’s verandah, then strew thousands of hardy, fast-growing zinnia seeds over the bare earth. The summer rain would fall and the sun would shine, and by the start of first term, a rainbow of 6-foot zinnias would spell a profanity to inspire a new generation of students. So went the fantasy.

The wonderful Ginsberg is long dead, but I’ve a question for him: what species would he recommend for protest?

 [1] Interview with Allen Ginsberg, 8/11/1996
[2] Interview with Allen Ginsberg, 8/11/1996