Wichita Vortex Sutra

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

I come


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."

                                AP dispatch

                                    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.

Paul Breslin: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

One can see the result of psycho-political confusion in a poem such as "Wichita Vortex Sutra," in which Ginsberg views his mother as only one among many casualties of a vast historical violence. Wichita, where Carry Nation started the temperance movement, "began a vortex of hatred that defoliated the Mekong Delta" and


                            murdered my mother

        who died of the communist anticommunist psychosis

                    in the madhouse one decade long ago

complaining about wires of masscommunication in her head

                    and phantom political voices in the air

                            besmirching her girlish character.

    Many another has suffered death and madness

                in the Vortex.

                                            (AG, 410)


Here we have an easy, scattershot indictment, in which the prohibition of liquor, McCarthyite anticommunism, the use of defoliants in Vietnam, and Naomi Ginsberg's "death and madness" are all the results of a national "hatred." In this passage, Ginsberg treats individual madness as the symptom of political madness, but again, he wants it both ways. By suggesting, even if only for purposes of metonymy, that Carry Nation began "the vortex," Ginsberg identifies a villain whose individual repressions initiate, through social contagion, the repressiveness of a whole country. (Carry Nation's name serves Ginsberg's turn all too conveniently.) In this sweeping equation of any social evil with any other, individuals can be treated either as willing agents or as passive victims, according to one's mood. Ginsberg extends no sympathy to Carry Nation, who presumably was also shaped by her social environment. Those one has singled out as villains are responsible for their actions, while those who have been cast as victims are not.

Ginsberg wrote a great deal of political poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, all of it sentimental in its insistence that the war in Vietnam resulted directly from bad consciousness, and that good consciousness drives out bad. Even in Wichita Vortex Sutra, the best of these political poems, Ginsberg portrays the war as the work of "inferior magicians with / the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold."

Cary Nelson: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

More than most Vietnam poems, Ginsberg’s long Witchita Vortex Sutra" is permeated with the managerial rhetoric and political slogans of the war. The poem is an immensely self-conscious but rather notational diary of a car ride toward the city of the title. Ginsberg records some of what he sees, in descriptive passages often sparse and underplayed though careful and appreciative, and includes fragments of radio and newspaper reports. As he has so many times before, he invokes Whitman and assumes his role: "Come lovers of Lincoln and Omaha, / hear my soft voice at last ... O Man of America, be born." Ginsberg is fully committed to the role, but more consistently mild and self-deprecating about its efficacy than his critics usually recognize. That reticence may help substantially to assist the poem in surviving. Ginsberg manages, in effect, to call on Whitman's prophetic posture, to invoke the role and its still powerful symbolism, while exhibiting no conviction that anyone will heed his voice. The language of the war is deplored, but with regret and fatalistic humor rather than with self-righteousness. Much more than most poets, he recognizes that the war for the majority of Americans was only language and photography. "Rusk says Toughness / Essential for Peace," Ginsberg notes, and describes "Vietcong losses leveling up three five zero zero" as "headline language poetry, nine decades after Democratic Vistas." "On the other side of the planet," Ginsberg reminds us, "flesh soft as a Kansas girl's / ripped open by metal explosion." There is "shrapnelled / throbbing meat / While this American nation argues war" with "conflicting language, language / proliferating in airwaves."

Interspersed with this reportage are the vignettes of silent Kansas landscapes and Ginsberg's own comments. He mocks the rhetoric of politicians, pleads with, teases, and challenges his American audience--"Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?"--and calls on a pantheon of gods to come to his aid: "Come to my lone presence / into this Vortex named Kansas." Yet Ginsberg's voice never dominates. We no longer have the insistent personal lamentation that carries the listings of his earlier poems. His presence here is intermittent, as if he realizes that while "almost all our language" is being "taxed by war" a poet cannot shape it to his will. The poem, then, seems only partly to belong to Ginsberg. History writes much of the text, and Ginsberg can try to identify what history has written, but he cannot pretend to dominate it. The rhythm of alternating vantage points carries us through to the end; the poem is remarkably effective and even hopeful about the possibility for intimacy and joy despite the war's toll on all of us. Yet the poem is finally only elegiac about the vocation of poetry. There is little left for poets to do, and no convincing reason for them to do even that. Nonetheless, Ginsberg manages a gesture whose political significance is precisely its powerlessness. If the war for us is language, he will let it end on his tongue. It is, he writes, an "Act done by my own voice" and "published to my own senses": "I lift my voice aloud" and "pronounce the words beginning my own millenium, I here declare the end of the War." It is a poignant, extraordinary moment, utterly gratuitous though an exemplary lesson and grandly Whitmanesque in its way. Yet it gives back to the rude history written by politicians all but the speech of vision and witness.

Hearing Ginsberg read "Wichita Vortex Sutra" during the war was exhilarating. In a large audience the declaration of the war's end was collectively purgative. The text of the poem retains that fragile, deluded but dramatic effectiveness because it registers its unresolvable ambiguities with such clarity.

James F. Mersmann: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

[The last twenty lines are] a microcosmic expression of Ginsberg's philosophy.  That it was the grape, the sacred fruit of Dionysus and ecstasy, that [temperance crusader] Carry [Nation] warred against links her war with Vietnam in Ginsberg's propensity for counterposing the ecstatic and erotic against the Apollonian order of war.  Her hatred, as Ginsberg sees it, was hatred of anything that would lift man out of that order, free him from the dead conformity and propriety of "righteous" living. . . .  For Ginsberg, Carry's ax struck not at rum but at celebration, spontaneity, freedom of desire; for him, her hatred brought the burden of guilt upon everything that does not prostitute itself to the letter of an imposed and rigid law. . . .  Once a vortex of insensitivity and "judgment" is set in motion, it feeds upon and justifies itself; it creates the Absolute Reality in which only its own actions are rational and possible.

. . . Language that has been made to serve the judgmental rational faculty rather than the imagination and the deeper self will necessarily become as superficial and dangerous as the master it serves.  The proliferation and prostitution of language through the mass media has transmogrified the natural magic power of language, words to express the ineffable and the transcendent, into evil black-magic language that denies the ineffable and transcendent and elevates the spiritless untruths of modern politics and culture.

A chief virtue of "Wichita Vortex Sutra" is that it makes the reader experience the proliferation and abuse of language.  Its technique is to notice and reproduce the language that inundates the senses everyday, and in doing so it makes one painfully aware that in every case language is used not to communicate truth but to manipulate the hearer.  Language bludgeons the reader from every direction, on the sides of boxcars, from church lawns, neon advertisements, newspapers, television, radio, grain elevators, the sides of barns. . . .

"The war is language" because language is no longer poetic or close to its source in experience or particularity, but has become a language of mental constructs and abstractions. . . .  Always the language goes on, removed and abstract while--"Flesh soft as a Kansas girl's / ripped open by metal explosion.". . .

In the dynamics of the poem, language takes its place alongside the repressive and judgmental consciousness, and replaces the erotic ecstasies the war mentality denies.  That denial and that repression of ecstasy remain for Ginsberg the greatest sin.

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.

Allen Ginsberg: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

The way this was determined was: I dictated it on this Uher tape recorder.  Now this Uher microphone has a little on-off gadget here (click!) and then when you hear the click it starts it again, so the way I was doing it was this (click!); when I clicked it on again it meant I had something to say.  So--if you listen to the original tape composition of this, it would be


That the rest of earth is unseen, (Click!)


an outer universe invisible, (Click!)


Unknown (Click!) except thru


(Click!) language


(Click!) airprint


(Click!) magic images


or prophecy of the secret (Click!)


heart the same (Click!)


in Waterville as Saigon one human form (Click!)

So when transcribing, I pay attention to the clicking on and off of the machine, which is literally the pauses, as words come out of my--as I wait for phrases to formulate themselves. . . .

And then, having paid attention to the clicks, arrange the phrasings on the page visually, as somewhat the equivalent of how they arrive in the mind and how they're vocalized on the tape recorder. . . .

It's not the clicks that I use, it's simply a use of pauses--exactly the same as writing on a page: where you stop, you write, in the little notebook, you write that one line or one phrase on one line, and then you have to wait for another phrase to come, so you go on then to another line, represented by another click.

. . . These lines in "Wichita" are arranged according to their organic time-spacing as per the mind's coming up with the phrases and the mouth pronouncing them.  With pauses maybe of a minute or two minutes between each line as I'm formulating it in my mind and the recording.

. . . Like if you're talking aloud, if you're talking--composing aloud or talking aloud to yourself.  Actually I was in the back of a bus, talking to myself, except with a tape recorder.  So everytime I said something interesting to myself I put it on tape.