Paul Carroll: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

With admirable sincerity and making no bones about it, Ginsberg attempts to assume the role called for by Shelley in the celebrated if somewhat petulant assertion that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."  Ginsberg assumes this role when he attempts to legislate by declaring the end of hostilities in Viet Nam. . . .  What makes this assertion so original is the means by which Ginsberg strives to give validity and authority to his act of legislation: he declares the end of the war by making a mantra. . . .

Does the mantra work? . . .

Even though [after the mantra] we hear no more of present conflict, however, there seem to be several more subtle ways in which the poem itself suggests doubts that the mantra is "working.". . .  The most obvious of these doubts occurs when we hear what does come over the radio now that there's no more news of war. . . .  False or evil language [still] infects what at first appear to be the healthy voices of the new dispensation made possible by the creation of the mantra.

On still another level, the poem corrodes one's hope that the mantra is working . . . [when] it ends in a loneliness or lack of love more exacerbating than the loneliness and hatred which pervades the opening section and which the poet discovers in himself and in his fellows and which he cries out against in the moving stanza beginning: "I'm an old man now, and a lonesome man in Kansas.". . .

Still a third way in which the poem suggests that the mantra hasn't worked its "right magic / Formula" is in the spiritual vacuum which pervades the final section.  Instead of continued communion with the gods or an awareness of divinity in Americans, however, the poet sees statues commemorating the only god this country knows: the god of the pragmatic, concrete, materialistic present. . . .  In short, the concluding stanzas depict a spiritually empty whirlpool, irresistible and catastrophic in power, in which the poet suffers the desolation of existence in a nation without gods or spiritual realities. . . .

One problem still remains: Does the failure of the mantra contain all of the complex of experience within the poem?  What prompts me to raise the question is the heroic quality in the final image of the poet as Baptist . . . [who] refuses to stop his attempt to dismantle the vortex of hatred and death which seems to envelop him.

. . . What matters is that the poem embodies and sustains throughout the statement of Ginsberg's complex desire to assume the function of poet as priestly legislator and as Baptist announcing the dispensation of peace, compassion and brotherhood for all Americans.  In this sense, then, "Wichita Vortex Sutra" is a major work.


Title Paul Carroll: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Paul Carroll Criticism Target Allen Ginsberg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poem in Its Skin
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