“Wichita Vortex Sutra”. 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.”
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,
Tony Trigilio

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