“Wichita Vortex Sutra”

by Allen Ginsberg
(1968)
   Written during a 1966 poetry reading tour of Kansas that was financed with a Guggenheim grant, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is arguably allen ginsberg’s most well-known antiwar poem, written in response to the Vietnam War. The pacifist impulse of the poem is framed by Ginsberg’s slow realization during this reading tour that he now was regarded, for better or worse, as a spokesperson for an emerging youth culture. The poem rewrites the U.S. government’s effort to win public support for the escalation of the war in Vietnam so that the success of the war effort might be revealed as a function of the Pentagon’s public-relations skill rather than any inherent moral value in the war itself. The poem borrows from Ginsberg’s increasing study of Buddhism. It is written as a Western version of a sutra, or Buddhist scripture. At the same time, it borrows from Ginsberg’s major Western influence, the poetry of William Blake, rendering Blake’s figure of the “vortex” as a symbol for the transformative potential of the antiwar effort. Ginsberg’s compositional strategies in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” are as important as the content of the poem itself. Language is the central subject of the poem and is just as important as the war: For Ginsberg, propaganda colonizes language and meaning into wartime rhetoric that appropriates bodies for combat. Thus, the scattered spacing and line breaks of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” dramatize in broken forms and fragmented language both the physical casualties and the rhetorical causes of war. The poem was composed while he was traveling in a Volkswagen Camper that Ginsberg bought with his Guggenheim funds. Ginsberg spoke his spontaneous impressions into a tape recorder that also picked up passing sounds and radio news snippets. He included these seemingly extraneous voices in the poem and used the on–off clicking of the tape recorder to determine the poem’s line structure, with the on–off tape-recorder clicks reproduced as line breaks that climb down the page. Innovations in contemporary poetry such as organic form and open-field poetics are recast in the form of what Ginsberg called auto poesy, where his immediate thoughts came out as spontaneous utterance in the transient, ever-moving space of the automobile. Ginsberg biographer Michael Schumacher has called this poem “a 1960s poetry version of on tHe road.” True to jack kerouac’s vision in that novel, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is Ginsberg’s effort to reveal a visionary version of America as he travels across it. However, the poet finds that he must create, rather than discover, the America of his prophecy. Faced with the empty language of war rhetoric on the Volkswagen’s radio, he creates a language for vision from his study of Buddhism. He invokes the Prajnaparamita Sutra to counter the language of the Pentagon. This is Buddhism’s sutra on “emptiness”—that is, on the constructed and impermanent nature, rather than the eternal nature, of all lived experience. This is no mystical vision for Ginsberg; it is as down-to-earth as language itself, and, as such, it is introduced by the speaker of the poem casually “over coffee.” The speaker’s words function, then, as a form of common language that might “overwhelm” the State Department’s call to war. Ginsberg begins with the premise, simply, that “[t]he war is language.” Language is “abused” for commercial purposes, and is “used / like magic for power on the planet.” The revisionary impulse of the poem is twofold: first, to expose the abuse of language and, second, to counter the State Department’s “magic” language with linguistic sorcery of his own.
   Ginsberg deploys the Buddhist mantra, a repetitive chant that is used in meditation, to counter the language of war. In a 1968 interview with Michael Aldrich, Ginsberg explained that the mantric poetics of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” emerged from the poem’s historical moment, an effort to “make a series of syllables that would be identical with a historical event.” This historical event was Ginsberg’s imagined end of the Vietnam War, expressed by the speaker of the poem as if in the casting of a magic spell: “I lift my voice aloud , / make Mantra of American language now, / I here declare the end of the War!” As Ginsberg said to Aldrich, this English-language mantra represents as much a belief in the power of language as an effort to test the boundaries of language. Describing the effect of President Lyndon Johnson’s language, specifically his ability to escalate the war and change millions of lives with mere vocalizations, Ginsberg said, “They pronounce these words, and then they sign a piece of paper, of other words, and a hundred thousand soldiers go across the ocean. So I pronounce my word, and so the point is, how strong is my word?”
   As often is the case in Ginsberg’s prophetic poetry, Ginsberg’s Buddhist influences are interconnected with his Blakean ones. “On to Wichita to prophesy! O frightful Bard!,” he writes, echoing the role of the prophetic “Bard” in Blake’s long poem Milton. Like Blake’s Bard, Ginsberg’s careens “into the heart of the Vortex.” Young American students are trapped in the poem’s Vortex; they suspect that their government lies to them as new draft notices—written in President Johnson’s mantra language—arrive every day. These “boys with sexual bellies aroused” are “chilled in the heart by the mailman.” As if produced by the figure of Moloch in “howl,” Selective Service notices come “writ by machine.” But always in “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” the country is cursed not so much by the machine but instead by the language of the machine. “I search for the language / that is also yours,” Ginsberg’s Bard laments, adding, “almost all our language has been taxed by war.”
 Bibliography
■ Davidson, Michael. “Technologies of Presence: Orality and the Tapevoice of Contemporary Poetics.” In Sound States: Innovative Poetics and Acoustical Technologies. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997, 97–125.
■ Ginsberg, Allen. Interview with Michael Aldrich et al. “Improvised Poetics.” Composed on the Tongue: Literary Conversations, 1967-1977. San Francisco: Grey Fox, 1980, 18–62.
■ Jarraway, David R. “ ‘Standing by His Word’: The Politics of Allen Ginsberg’s Vietnam ‘Vortex.’ ” Journal of American Culture 16 (Fall 1993): 81–88.
■ Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s, 1992.
■ Trigilio, Tony. “ ‘Will You Please Stop Playing With the Mantra?’: The Embodied Poetics of Ginsberg’s Later Career.” In Reconstructing the Beats, edited by Jennie Skerl, 119–140. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
   Tony Trigilio

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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