Ginsberg in Wichita


Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg’s Vortex

Introduction: The Vortex of Allen Ginsberg

by Lee Streiff

Read Wichita Vortex Sutra (1966)

Ginsberg’s Journey to Wichita

When Allen Ginsberg came to Wichita in 1966, he was traveling cross-country in a search for America. In the tradition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and his close friend Jack Kerouac, he was trying to understand not only what America had been, but what it was at the present and what it might become in the future. He was looking for the archetype of The New American Man — a concept that had been slowly unfolding in his mind.

He included Wichita in his journey because he knew so many people who had come from here, and he was curious about what it was about this city in the Great Plains that had created such a large number of inventive artists and sensitive writers.

He had also been told the myth of the Vortex by the former Wichitans living in San Francisco, and the image of the Vortex — quite apart from the meaning given to it by his informants — had taken on a significance of its own for him. As it always does.

Even before he arrived in Wichita, the image had become the focal point of his thinking about what he would find, and his experiences in Wichita accreted around the image to produce “Wichita Vortex Sutra”.

The essays in this section are intended to provide a background for understanding the culture of Wichita, a view of what Ginsberg’s experiences here were, and an insight into the transformation of these two into the substance of the poem itself.

A Note on the Quotations

I have tried to restrict the number of direct quotations from Ginsberg’s poems in this work because of copyright considerations – quoting only when “fair use” for scholarly purposes seemed necessary and justified (see the “Fair Use” provision of Chapter 1, Section 107 of the 1976 Copyright Act as amended, in fn. 38): [see Section C:]

In amplifying these standards, the following examples are given of fair use:

“… quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; ….”

As the analysis of the poems here is scholarly criticism and meant to be educational in nature, and because this work is not for profit and does not impact on the potential market for the poems, the limited number of lines quoted in the essays clearly fall under these “fair use” provisions.

In fact, in order to read these essays with understanding, one should have a copy of Ginsberg’s poems in front of him and refer to the whole context of what is being said concerning any given topic. The book I have found most useful for the period I am writing about is Collected Poems 1947-1980, by Allen Ginsberg, © Harper & Row, New York, 1984, and it is to this edition that the page numbers cited here refer. All direct quotations have been documented at the end of each quotation, and credits have been given for all sources at the end of each essay.

The Geography and Chronology of Ginsberg’s Kansas Trip

In order to understand the trio of poems composed by Ginsberg as a result of his 1966 foray into Kansas: “Hiway Poesy LA-Albuquerque-Texas-Wichita”, “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, and “Chances ‘R’”, it is necessary for the reader to become familiar with both the geography of the area and the chronology of the trip.

The Entourage

The party making the cross-country trip, which left San Francisco around December 18, 1965 (see “Continuation of a Long Poem of These States”) and arrived in Wichita on February 4, 1966, consisted of Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Peter’s brother, Julius. The VW van that they traveled in was bought by Allen with money from a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation.

According to Charles Plymell’s account in his memoir The Last of the Moccasins, first published in 1971, Ginsberg’s preparation for his arrival in Wichita was minimal:

“I got sick of California and went back to Wichita. […] The next thing I did was get on a skateboard and fell off and broke my right ankle. I had to have surgery at the hospital. […] I was laid up in Wichita with a cast on and Allen called and said he was coming to visit the Vortex and to wait around. He called me when he got in town and I went down to Fairland’s Cafe to meet him.”[Plymell, The Last of the Moccasins, 1996: 150-1].

Plymell accompanied Ginsberg on the Topeka and Lawrence trip, the Nebraska trip, and the trip to Kansas City, where he left the original group of three, which continued on, eventually arriving in New York.

The Arrival in Wichita and the Nebraska Side-Trip

According to “Hiway Poesy LA-Albuquerque-Texas-Wichita”, dated January 28-29, 1966, the Ginsberg entourage entered Kansas at the town of Liberal, went through Kingman, and arrived in Wichita. This would have been from the west on U.S. Highway 54.

Ginsberg’s Nebraska side-trip, taking place between February 18th and February 20th.

Ginsberg’s Nebraska side-trip, taking place between February 18th and February 20th.

The side-trip to Nebraska through northern Kansas described in “Part I” of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” begins with the town of McPherson, then goes north to Salina, and crosses over the Nebraska border. The mentions of “lamps strung along the horizon east at Hebron” and the “Homestead National Monument near Beatrice” confirms that U.S. Highway 81 was taken all the way from Wichita to Hebron and then U.S. 136 to Beatrice. At the end of this leg, U. S. Highway 77 was traveled between Beatrice and Lincoln, and “Part I” ends with entering Lincoln. In Lincoln, Ginsberg visited with Karl Shapiro and gave “… an ecstatic reading to 3,000 students at the University of Nebraska … .” [Barry Farrell, Life, May 27, 1966: 89]. Ginsberg’s Nebraska side-trip, taking place between February 18th and February 20th.

“Part II” is a record of the trip back – “South to Wichita” – ending at the Eaton Hotel and the “center” of the Vortex. It is interesting to note that Ginsberg’s Nebraska side-trip took him both through McPherson, where Bruce Conner was born, and through Marysville, where Michael McClure was originally from.

Ginsberg’s third entrance into Wichita, from the north after the Nebraska side-trip, is clearly laid out in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”. Coming in on the turnpike from El Dorado, and past an oil pump, the party gets off the turnpike on Kellogg (U.S. Highway 54) on the east side of Wichita, drives west along Kellogg to Hydraulic Street, turns north and goes for a half mile to Douglas Avenue (past Tittsworth Insurance and the De Vorss mortuary), turns west on Douglas (past the offices of the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, the Union Station, and The Magic Theatre-Vortex / Skidrow Beanery), and “returns” to the Eaton Hotel. The time of arrival is described as “at Sunday dusk” – on February 20th.

Identifiable dates of Ginsberg’s Kansas journey.

Identifiable dates of Ginsberg’s Kansas journey.

“Part I” of the “Sutra” is dated February 15, 1966. In Planet News, “Part II” is undated, but in the Collected Poems it is dated February 14 — but neither of these dates can be correct, as a contemporary account in the Wichita State newspaper, The Sunflower, still has him working on the poem on February 21st, the day of his reading at WSU. [Dan Garrity, “A Poet’s Pilgrimage…”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966: 5].

As far as the chronology of the entire Kansas journey is concerned, he apparently arrived in Wichita on February 4th, and on Saturday, February 5th, was interviewed by a reporter from The Wichita Eagle for a story that appeared the next day, on Sunday, February 6th.

There are some references in “Part I” that are not in chronological order — and a reference to an event that took place after the 20th — the return to Wichita from Nebraska. In particular, this includes the appearances at Wichita State University on Monday, February 21st. According to Plymell, the Wichita State reading was arranged by a friend of his after the university’s poet in residence, Bruce Cutler, shut the door in their faces and would not talk to them. [Plymell, 1989: 290].

Schematic map of Ginsberg’s “Vortex” area.

Schematic map of Ginsberg’s “Vortex” area.

Although Plymell writes that Ginsberg read at Moody’s Skidrow Beanery, at 625 E. Douglas, during his stay, he does not make it clear just when this occurred, though other sources state that it occurred on Monday, February 14th. [The Sunflower, February 14, 1966: 2]. Ginsberg’s visits to Okie’s Bar at 505 E. Douglas and the Chances “R”, a gay bar on East Douglas, are documented, but the dates for these are uncertain. The poem “Chances ‘R’” in Planet News is only dated “February 1966”.

The Northeast Kansas Trip

In addition to his other Kansas stops, according to the Eagle article by Robert Whereatt, Ginsberg was scheduled to speak at the University of Kansas in Lawrence on Wednesday the 9th and at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka on Friday, the 11th. The Menninger and the University of Kansas stops are mentioned by Plymell in The Last of the Moccasins [Plymell, 1996: 153].

Ginsberg’s appearance at the University of Kansas on February 9th is covered in some detail in Barry Farrell’s article in the May 27, 1966 issue of Life magazine. Farrell describes a “deeply excited” reception by thousands of students at KU. [Farrell, 1966: 86]. The Life article is extremely sympathetic, with Farrell writing, “… Allen speaks today to the young of the world at large as the most famous and admired American poet.” [Farrell, 1966: 80]. The Poet was being co-opted by the Establishment.


This section first appeared in a slightly different form as Chapter 4 of The Vortex Souvenir Book, by Lee Streiff, © 2000.

  • Farrell, Barry. Life Magazine, May 27, 1966.
  • Garrity, Dan. “A Poet’s Pilgrimage…”, The Sunflower, February 23, 1966.

Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980, © Harper & Row, New York, 1984. Howl. Various editions in print.Planet News, City Lights, San Francisco, CA, 1968. Plymell, Charles. The Last of the Moccasins, 1971. © Various editions in print. Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 11, 1989.

  • “Poet Allen Ginsberg Slated to Speak for Dialectica”, The Sunflower, February 14, 1966.
  • Whereatt, Robert. “Poet Says City Trains, Then Stifles Its Talent”, The Wichita Eagle, February 6, 1966.

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