On Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra:
“Wichita Vortex Sutra” originated as a kind of proto-podcast that Ginsberg intoned into an Uher tape recorder while traveling across the American heartland in the winter of 1966. Though the language of the poem is specific to the Vietnam War (which was escalating at the time), it certainly speaks to the conditions of 2006 — not only in its refrain about how empty language started, but cannot end, a military action, but also in its riff on the contradictions between distant Asia and the Middle American conservatism that has enabled a war there; in its alarm at the numbing impact of global telecommunications and the media preoccupation with statistics; in its despair at the hypocritical politicians and corporations that are profiting from the war. Fragments of the poem first appeared in the May 27, 1966, issue of LIFE, and the full text later debuted in a City Lights “Pocket Poets” collection entitled Planet News.
Ginsberg’s journey to Kansas, which he undertook in a Volkswagen van purchased with Guggenheim grant money, stemmed from his long-standing fascination with the state (in “Howl,” he mentions Kansas as the place where “the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet”). In one sense, Ginsberg felt that Kansas was politically representative of Middle American support for war and the military-industrial complex — a stereotype that presaged its current “red state” reputation by several decades. But beyond political generalizations, Ginsberg saw Kansas as the mystic center of America, celebrated by Whitman in Leaves of Grass (“chants going forth from the center, from Kansas, and thence equidistant / shooting in pulses of fire ceaseless to vivify all”). The poet saw Wichita, the ultimate destination of his road-trip poem, as the symbolic heart of this transcendental American vortex. [more]
From The Last Anti-War Poem by Rolf Potts at The Believer
From “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? . . . [more]
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. [more]
Wichita Vortex Sutra
Wichita Vortex Sutra, Allen Ginsberg (audio)