Michael Davidson: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"
In The Fall of America, he traverses the United States in a Volkswagen, speaking his observations into a tape recorder and singing the requiem of Walt Whitman's democratic vistas. The book was written in 1966 during the first major escalation of the Vietnam War, and Ginsberg was among the first to register the enormous impact of global telecommunications on that conflict. One poem in the volume, "Wichita Vortex Sutra," captures the bizarre contradictions between distant Indochina and middle America. Ginsberg is literally in a vortex of recorded speech as he drives (or is driven) from Macpherson, Kansas, to Wichita, where he is to give a poetry reading. He describes himself being surrounded by high tension wires, telegraph poles, and invisible radio waves:
News Broadcast & old clarinets
Watertower dome Lighted on the flat plain
car radio speeding acrost railroad tracks--
Kansas! Kansas! Shuddering at last!
PERSON appearing in Kansas!
angry telephone calls to the University
Police dumbfounded leaning on
their radiocar hoods
While Poets chant to Allah in the roadhouse Showboat!
Blue eyed children dance and hold thy Hand O aged Walt
who came from Lawrence to Topeka to envision
Iron interlaced upon the city plain—
Telegraph wires strung from city to city O Melville!
Television brightening thy rills of Kansas lone
Ginsberg views himself as a "lone man from the void" like Whitman, who has been sent to identify himself as a "PERSON" in Kansas. His isolation is contrasted with a world of electronic sound--news broadcasts, crank telephone calls protesting his appearance on college campuses, police in their "radiocars," and television signals. Ginsberg is driving through Bible-belt America, where religious broadcasts merge with news from Vietnam and then-current patriotic songs such as Sergeant Barry Sadler's "The Ballad of the Green Berets." It is against this electrical interference that the salutary voices of Whitman and Melville are remembered, voices forged in a different America and a different auditory sensorium.
As Ginsberg rolls through middle America, he records the voices of radio announcers broadcasting the daily body count of the dead in Southeast Asia. Newspaper headlines, billboards, and other forms of highway signage add to the general information blitzkrieg as Ginsberg strives to retain a voice capable of prophecy:
"We will negotiate anywhere anytime"
said the giant President
Kansas City Times 2/14/66: "Word reached U.S. authorities
that Thailand's leaders feared that in Honolulu Johnson might have tried to
persuade South Vietnam's rulers to ease their stand against negotiating
with the Viet Cong.
American officials said these fears were groundless and Humphrey
was telling the Thais so."
The last week's paper is Amnesia.
Quoted material from newspapers, far from clarifying the ambiguities of the historical moment, creates further confusion. The speech of Johnson or Humphrey, filtered through AP journalese, convinces neither the Thai leaders who want further assurance of American support of South Vietnam nor the poet who wants the opposite. Against the doubletalk of Washington or the newspaper, Ginsberg poses the prophetic voice of Whitman's "Democratic Vistas." In a world so riven by undirected sound, Ginsberg yearns for a sign or an icon that participates directly in the physical character of its source. He finds it, partially, in the Chinese character for truth as defined by Ezra Pound, "man standing by his word":
Word picture: forked creature
standing by a box, birds flying out
representing mouth speech
Ham Steak please waitress, in the warm café.
Ginsberg wants a voice that has not already been heard, one equivalent to Pound's ideogram that captures in an instant what the canned voice of the media cannot provide. The voice as "word picture" would be as immediate as birds flying out of a box or a request from a lunch menu. For Ginsberg the orality of the tapevoice stands in direct opposition to the reproduced heteroglossia of incorporated sound. Newsmedia, press reports, advertising, and police radio transmissions are all implicated in an information blockage against which the low-tech, Volkswagen-driven cassette recorder stands as alternative. Prophecy no longer emanates from some inner visionary moment but from a voice that has recognized its inscription within an electronic environment, a voice that has seized the means of reproduction and adapted it to oppositional ends. "I sing the body electric," Whitman chants, but the literal possibility for such a song had to wait for Ginsberg and his generation.
|Title||Michael Davidson: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Michael Davidson||Criticism Target||Allen Ginsberg|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||15 Jun 2020|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word|
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|Contexts||No Data||Tags||No Data|