In the original back cover statement for Planet News – which is, oddly, ellipsed out in the reprint version – Ginsberg writes:
[Ginsberg, 1988: 815].
Thus, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” – from February of 1966 – is a breakthrough work in two ways: along with “Hiway Poesy: L.A. – Albuquerque – Texas – Wichita”, it is the full realization of the “mind-collage” technique begun with “Siesta in Xbalba” – albeit now aided by a tape recorder; and it is the “keystone” of a large group of poems that seek to understand the dimensions of America’s ultimate Karma – and the consequences of its involvement in the Vietnam War.
And the primary theme of this poem is the war in Vietnam, using the central image of the Wichita Vortex, and the internal structure of the trip from Wichita to Lincoln and back.
“Now war moves my mind”
It is strange, perhaps, that Ginsberg seemingly came so late to the conclusion that his poetry had to be used as a voice in the anti-War movement. It was early on that he had used his poetry to express political and economic views. Since his poem “Paterson”, written in 1949, Ginsberg had been using his poetry to develop his “big” themes: sex, money, power, war, drugs, the details of the breadth of the nation, his physical body, religious incantation, and death. In the early poetry, the political and economic themes were generally expressed in the predictable terms of the social causes and jargon of the 1930s Socialists and Communists. Sacco and Vanzetti, the Wobblies, the Spanish Loyalists, Trotsky, and other such touchstones – and many lesser known and more obscure – find their places in the poems.
But it is not until the fall of 1965 that the Vietnam War becomes a distinct part of his declared agenda. The crescendo begins in February of 1966 in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” and reaches its climax in July of 1966, in “Iron Horse”, where he states, “Now war moves my mind-”; and it is in this poem that the powerful consequences of the war are enunciated: “The Karma accumulated bombing Vietnam […] Must come home to America […].”
The first mention of Vietnam in Ginsberg’s poetry occurs in “Television Was a Baby Crawling Toward That Deathchamber”, dated February 1961. The reference, however, is fleeting (concerning the burning of propaganda from Vietnam and China by the post office) and the poem itself was extensively cut and revised by Plymell in the fall of 1963 in any case, so it is difficult to know what the original poem may have said.
Other references, particularly those from his 1963 trip to Southeast Asia detailed in “Angkor Wat”, seem curiously detached from the fighting going on in the region and the presence of U. S. Army troops and Marines. He expresses his “neutrality” in “polite” terms: “I going to take both sides”; even while remarking on the bodies of dead Viet Cong. At this stage he seemed to regard the conflict as an internal one between Catholics and Buddhists, with a threatened Chinese presence in the background. Significantly, the only reference to Vietnam in the personally important poem “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express”, which ends the trip, is in one verse concerning the self-immolation of Buddhist monks.
The few poems of 1964 are devoid of Asian politics and wars, as are those of the first half of 1965. Even in mid-1965 when references are made to Vietnam, they are mixed in with references to death and injustice in many other places in the world. Ginsberg has not yet focused on Vietnam as a particular conflict, even after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of August 7, 1964, or the march of 15,000 White House picketers against the war in April of 1965.
In September of 1965, as he begins the These States poems, he still lacks a focus on the war in his poetry, even though he has begun an activism outside of it. The answer to this puzzle may lie in the fact that Ginsberg may have been trying to find a meta-solution to the problem of how to deal with the war. In a two-part profile on Ginsberg in The New Yorker in 1968, Jane Kramer says,
up barricades … .”
[Jane Kramer, “Paterfamilias-1”, The New Yorker, August 17, 1968: 33].
Kramer goes on to assert that Ginsberg thus “set the tone” for “the be-ins, love-ins, chant-ins, sacred orgies, and demon-dispelling exorcisms” that followed. [Kramer, 1968: 33]. If indeed this was his strategy, he had moved past it by Christmas Eve of 1965, in the Third Installment of the These States poems, where he finally grapples with the Vietnam war directly in his poetry.
By the middle of February, then, when he wrote “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, he had both the focus and the technique needed to bring the war into his idiom.
The Wichita Connection
Kansas, and Wichita in particular, held a fascination for Ginsberg. Not just because it was the physical center of America, and because it could symbolize the archetypical core of American life – but perhaps, for more than any other reason, because he was intrigued by the manifest talent of the large number of people he met who came from Kansas. Wichita seemed paradoxical to him: though conservative, riddled with Birchers, and controlled by evil businessmen and repressive civic officials – it somehow produced brilliant artists and sensitive poets. The exploration of this enigma finds its way into several of his poems.
It shows up first in “Over Kansas”, written in 1954:
acrost imaginary plains
I never made afoot
into Kansas hallucination
and supernatural deliverance.
Who rides that lone road now?
What heart? Who smokes and loves
in Kansas auto now?
Who’s talking magic
under the night? Who walks
downtown and drinks black beer
in his eternity? Whose eyes
collect the streets and mountain tops
for storage in his memory?
What sage in the darkness?
The reference in “loves / in Kansas auto” is to an anecdote of Michael McClure’s, which Ginsberg repeats in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”:
burst into animal beauty
drunk, getting laid in a car
in a neon misted street
15 years ago –
This story, which McClure also tells in The Mad Cub, struck Ginsberg in some special way, as did some other things that Michael said. At least one reference in “Howl” (1955-6) is also to McClure:
because the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet in Kansas,
[Ginsberg, 1988: 127].
And, probably as well, the phrase, “Holy the cocks of the grandfathers of Kansas!” in the poem “Footnote to Howl” (1955) [Ginsberg, 1988: 134] – McClure wrote of his maternal grandfather in The Mad Cub.
In “Hiway Poesy: L. A.-Albuquerque-Texas-Wichita”, he also refers to McClure – and others:
McClure & Branaman gone
J. Alan White departed left no address
Charlie Plymell come Now to San Francisco
Ann Buchanan passing thru,
Bruce Conners took his joke to another coast-
Students departing for Iowa & Chicago,
New York beckoning at the end of the stage-
And though it is not specifically in connection to Wichita, there is a list of people in the poem “Nov. 23, 1963: Alone” that reads like a roster of Wichita expatriates. The day is, of course, the day after the Kennedy assassination and Ginsberg is “alone” within himself at Gough Street amidst many people, including: Charlie Plymell, Ann Buchanan, David Haselwood, Alan Russo, Glenn Todd, Justin Hein, and Michael McClure – all in his presence or in his mind that day. As a note, though The Mad Cub was not published until 1970, a manuscript copy apparently circulated as early as 1963. Glenn Todd had seen a copy and mentioned it to me in the spring of 1963, and Ginsberg’s reference in the poem was probably to that same copy.
In his Wichita Eagle interview of February 6, 1966, Ginsberg cited McClure, Roxie Powell, White, Russo, Conner, Stan Brakhage, Robert Brannaman, and Plymell as writers, painters, and film makers who had left Wichita. The article quoted Ginsberg:
Ginsberg blames the repressive atmosphere “which runs from police harassment through misunderstanding.” It strangles artistic potential,
he said. […]
How is Wichita able to produce such talent if the climate for the flowering of talent is so adverse? Ginsberg was asked.
Talent has emerged, according to Ginsberg, not so much in spite of repression, but because of it. The artists fought back, rebelled, broke through the hostility. They learned in Wichita; they became productive away from Wichita.
[Robert Whereatt, The Wichita Eagle, February 6, 1966].
Whether his theory is correct or not, it demonstrates that Ginsberg had thought a good deal about the paradox of Wichita and its talented offspring.
Before leaving this section, I should also make a comment on the associative chains in Ginsberg’s mental processes, which are sometimes quite obvious. The cluster of “Kansas”, “lone”, “highway” (or “road”), and “night” shows up in “Over Kansas” and twelve years later again in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”.
The landscape of Kansas seemed to be depressing to Ginsberg, with its “empty skies” and “vast plains”, and an introspective apprehensiveness pervades “Wichita Vortex Sutra”. What would ordinarily be viewed as a peaceful pastoral setting, he plays off against the war mentality he hears about on the radio and sees in the newspaper:
gray skybare trees lining the road
South to Wichita
Is this the land that started war on China?
of oriental anxiety molecules
And the linkage of “vortex” and “anxiety” here, and elsewhere in the poem, provides one of the meanings of the image of the vortex for Ginsberg.
The Poesy and Structure
Ginsberg uses a variety of special effects techniques in the poem to get across his meaning:
- the visual component of what is seen out the window of the van as it hurtles headlong on its journey – including signs as well as images;
- the voices and music heard on the van’s radio;
- flashback, flashforward, and imaginary scenes in the loquitur’s mind;
- headlines and phrases snatched from newspapers picked up along the way – and the use of the structure of presentation in the newspaper;
- the evocation of images and happenings by the naming of cities, people, and places;
- the use of the vocative case and the declamatory style;
- religious chants and expressions;
- echoes of, or allusions to other poems, to films, and sayings;
- the manipulation and shifting of time; and,
- associative word play; among, doubtless, others.
While being inherently integral to “the long poem of these States”, of which “Wichita Vortex Sutra” is Part V, these techniques also make certain ideas and images functional in the context of the poem’s structure. Ginsberg describes this structure as a “chronicle taperecorded scribed by hand or sung condensed, the flux of car bus airplane dream consciousness Person during Automated Electronic War years, newspaper headline radio brain auto poesy & silent desk musings, headlights flashing on road through these States of consciousness.” [Ginsberg, 1988: 815].
The pivot of all of the techniques used in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, however, is the central image of the Vortex. And, of course, the image must arise out of Wichita, and the poem itself must be a sutra.
As defined in the notes in Collected Poems 1947-1980, sutras are “Buddhist discourses or dialogues, joining teacher and student in transmission of Dharma, or doctrine, over generations.” [Ginsberg, 1988: 763]. The discourse is, however, dynamic, not academic – and the doctrine it teaches is fundamental, as Ginsberg sees it, to the essence of what America should be – not just as a country, but as a spiritual embodiment of the promise that Whitman saw in it. Thus, when one reads the poem, he should do so by interacting vitally with the vision expressed in the invocation – or incantation: “O Man of America, be born!” [Ginsberg, 1988: 395].
One particular device Ginsberg uses is the continual repetition of the word “language” – meaning it superficially in the sense of the noun “babble”. A prose writer might use the phrase “blah, blah, blah” to express the same thing. He uses this sense in quoting the newspaper or radio:
Some of the
But Ginsberg goes beyond this sense to develop a shading to the term that makes it mean that language is being used to obscure the truth rather than to express it – or perhaps that it is being used to place the reality in an altered context where the truth is to be viewed as something different from what logic and reason – or sanity -would dictate that it was:
Put it this way in television language
Use the words
In one spectacular sequence on how the war is being presented in the media, he also develops the idea of Magic language. Beginning with numbers of dead Viet Cong as mere words and Chinese ideograms as representations of reality, he moves to “magic for power”, and “Black Magic language”. Using such phrases as “inferior magicians”, “alchemical formula”, “funky warlocks”, and “handmedown mandrake terminology”, his associative chain takes him to Fantasia’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice “who lost control/ of the simplest broomstick in the world:/ language”. [Ginsberg, 1988: 400-1]. It is a devastating poetic analysis.
But Ginsberg also finds himself at a loss as to how to use the magic of language in his anti-war protest:
On the bridge over Republican River
almost in tears to know
how to speak the right language-
But he does find the way in an inspired moment: by Prophecy and Declaration:
make Mantra of American language now,
I here declare the end of the War!
He has found his meta-solution.
The Image of the Vortex
As one reads the poem it becomes clear that the Wichita Vortex of Allen Ginsberg is not the Wichita Vortex of Bruce Conner, or Michael McClure, or James Streiff, or Paul Carter. And the lesson to be learned about his Vortex is not a simple or whimsical one:
lonely crank telephone voices sighing in dread,
and students waken trembling in their beds
[Ginsberg, 1988: 404].
The old Socialist bogeymen of his parental legacy are united with Kansan Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” and given a concrete embodiment in this Vortex.
These references to the aircraft factories, oil men, media, and wealthy men of Wichita are an embryonic token of what becomes explicit and fully grown in the “poem of these States” entitled “War Profit Litany” (1967). In this poem, he says he names – without actually naming them – the corporations, government and military men, industries, media, and other institutions of America that are making “money millions” from the war. In a sense, Wichita is a symbol of this great conglomerate of power in miniature in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, and the Vortex is the swirling interlocking mechanism of Death behind it. One recalls his invocation of Melville, and Ahab’s Platonic idea of the Mask – and the evil behind it. Here, however, by reference to the Prajnaparamita Sutra, he makes the Vortex a manifestation of a Koan: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” [Ginsberg, 1988: 776].
Besides being the source of anxiety and fear, the Vortex is also a crystallization of hatred
began a vortex of hatred that defoliated the Mekong Delta-
Proud Wichita! vain Wichita
But it can also be a place: “into this Vortex named Kansas”; “Onward to Wichita!/ Onward to the Vortex”; “on Douglas/ to the center of the Vortex, calmly returned/ to Hotel Eaton”; and “in the Vortex from Hydraulic/ to the end of 17th-”. [Ginsberg, 1988: 407, 388, 410].
Flying over Nebraska a year later, in “Returning North of Vortex”, Ginsberg remembers his declaration of the end of the war in “red winking Kansas”, and mourns that nothing has changed. In spatial terms, one has the sense of a set of nested circles in the Universes of discourse that define this Vortex: Kansas > Wichita > Hotel Eton.
In the second place in the quotes above – Wichita, the emotions associated with the Vortex are hate, boredom, and fury, and the judgment rendered is that of “evil”. In the last place mentioned – Hydrailic to the end of 17th, the Vortex is also a state of mind: fear and hatred again – and “death and madness”, this time in Wichita’s Black neighborhood.
The shift from the war in Vietnam to the “souls/ held prisoner in Niggertown” at the end of the poem seems an incongruous conclusion to the poem. It appears to come suddenly out of nowhere. And yet it is consistent with the philosophical base that Ginsberg has been using throughout the poem. It arises from the third of “The Three Refuges”: “I take my refuge in the company of my fellow Selfs” [Ginsberg, 1988: 771], and “The First Vow” of the Bodhisattva, “Sentient Beings are numberless, I vow to liberate all” [Ginsberg, 1988: 789]. In connection with these lines, it should be noted that in terms of the local geography of Wichita, north Hydraulic is roughly near the western edge of the Black community, and if one drives east along 17th Street from Hydraulic, he goes through a central part of the ghetto. He also goes along the southern edge of Wichita State University to where 17th dead-ends on north Oliver Street at White Chapel Memorial Gardens. The Note on this line in The Collected Poems 1947-1980 is in error in defining “Niggertown” as between Hydraulic and 17th streets – the streets are perpendicular to each other [Ginsberg, 1988: 780].
The Vortex, then, not surprisingly, is used in a complex way in the poem. As the pivot of the Sutra’s lesson, the image of the Vortex does not have to have a single metaphorical meaning or symbolic value. On the other hand, as Ginsberg uses it, it is predominately a malevolent force. Interestingly, Ginsberg applied this meaning to the Vortex before he actually arrived in Kansas and experienced it first-hand. It is in Part IV of the poem on These States, “Hiway Poesy: L.A.-Albuquerque-Texas-Wichita”, that this characterization first appears – as he just arrives in Texas, citing the “Birchite Hate”, the “evil Police”, the “innocent citykid eye”, and the “Vampire stake of politics Patriotism […]”. It is an incredibly vicious rendering of Wichita – and the Vortex.
But it is, after all, only what he had been told about Wichita; and what he was expecting to find there. He saw the Wichita he had not yet seen through the eyes of a few of its expatriates – particularly those who were inclined to enhance the drama of their flight from the culture of the city.
There is, as well, a time disjunction in Ginsberg’s invective, because in reality much of this portrayal was already out-of-date anyway. For example, by 1966, any status the Birchers may have ever had was long gone, and their brand of patriotism and anti-Communism was no longer fashionable. Even as early as October of 1960, The Wichita Sunday Eagle and Beacon had already run a devastating editorial attacking the Birchite activities in the city; and by the end of 1961 the Birchers were regarded as nothing more than laughingstocks. For an organization surfacing in Wichita in November of 1959, the John Birch Society had the rather short life of only two years in terms of any consequence. And in Wichita, it was only the fringe element that ever embraced its cause in any case – the real Power Structure conspicuously failed to become involved.
Similarly, the “evil Police” had found the public support of their efforts to protect morality so weakened in the earlier clash over the Skidrow Beanery in 1964 that the Showboat incident during Ginsberg’s visit was officially passed off as the “mistake” of over-zealous rookie cops. And at the WSU reading, the police said they would only act if someone at the university signed a complaint. This is not to say that authoritarian attitudes did not still exist, but they were no longer regarded with the same deference they had once been given.
With respect to Ginsberg’s remarks regarding the sexual morality of this Middle Class, Midwestern community; even that was never quite as depicted. In particular, by the mid-Sixties Wichita was very much like most other parts of the country in its attitudes about these issues – witness the responses of the audiences at the Beanery / Vortex, at Wichita State, and at Kansas University, for example. The traditional sexual mores of the 1920s and ‘30s had already been transformed by the War years of the early 1940s, and the conservative attitudes of the 1950s were actually as much a “media image” as a reality. But by the mid-Sixties, even Life magazine – the bastion of that image- was ready to give Ginsberg’s Kansas visit a favorable slant.
There are several themes in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, but only four which stand out in the present context:
- The Vietnam War;
- the New American Man;
- the Repression of the Money Culture and Police Authority; and,
- the Beautiful Children who have been driven out.
All of these themes have been touched on in this section in varying degrees, and much more could be said about each – but a reading of the entire poem itself is essential to an understanding of how they are linked together and what lesson one is to draw from it all.
Nevertheless, a few final remarks are necessary:
First, Ginsberg saw Wichita as a typical up-scale Fifties community, with “carpet livingrooms/ on sidestreets” and “TV dens” – a city still controlled by rigid conformity and powerful businessmen. Though this gave him one of the themes for his poem, his view unfortunately was one that had been frozen in time in the memories of that first wave of California arrivals – augmented by the embellished tales of the later second wave. When he finally did get to Wichita, it is not surprising that he saw what he had been prepared to see, and interpreted events in terms of that expectation. A threatened, third-rate University poet, a couple of dumb young cops, one millionaire political crank, some weak-kneed University administrators, and a small group of rude agitators became Wichita – though such an assemblage might easily have been found anywhere else in the country.
And even though he must have seen much that might have contradicted the preconceived image he had, somehow, it did not alter his perception.
Second, then, in particular, of the present “innocent citykids”, and the “joyful murmurers”, he says little in “Wichita Vortex Sutra”, even though they flocked to the “magick bars” and the University to hear him. When they are spoken of, they are depicted only as victims. Essentially there is a fundamental conflict in the vision of these idealized Good Children of the Vortex, and the Evil Malevolence of the Vortex, that is left unresolved in the poem.
It is not at all clear to me, for instance, that by 1966 these innocents were still all that innocent. I was teaching high school at that time, and was fully aware that my present students and those that kept in contact with me that had gone on to college were far from being naive about sex, drugs, and the whole morality of the Hippie movement that was then evolving. In any case, the idealization was simplistic, and the magnitude of the victimization was exaggerated. It made a good polemic, especially for the time, but it was not true to the facts.
Third, we do not know from the poem what the New American Man is to be. Perhaps Ginsberg saw in the emerging Hippie movement the potential for such a development. But 1966 was on the cusp of the change, and no one then knew how things were going to eventually turn out. It was only later that many of us saw the void that lay deep inside the outer colorful and elegant shell.
And finally, there is a perplexing problem with the fundamental conception of the poem. Essentially, the Vortex in the poem is an image without a myth to sustain it. As in so much of Ginsberg’s poetry, it is the theme that dominates, supported by a richly textured ambiance.
And there is a hidden theme which only emerges fully in the later poems. At the end of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” it seems that the reader is left with a sense of loneliness and hopelessness. The Declaration did not end the War. And “Proud Wichita”, “vain Wichita” is left to be destroyed by another manifestation of its own Vortex nature.
In “Iron Horse” (July, 1966) and “Returning North of Vortex” (January, 1967) in particular, however, a more measured defiance emerges, and a determination that wrongs must be righted, and evil must be defeated. In the first he asserts that “The Karma accumulated bombing Vietnam […] Must come home to America [….]” [Ginsberg, 1988: 452], and in the second, “[…] And if it were my wish, we’d lose & our will / be broken [….]” [Ginsberg, 1988: 478]. Ultimately, he was right on both counts.
When I talked to Ginsberg at the Showboat on February 15th, I had no inkling of the fact that he was in the midst of creating one of his most powerful poems, and that within three days the accumulated ideas and the imagery and thoughts recorded on his tape recorder as he traveled to Lincoln and back would burst forth with such intensity. Looking back, I can see that some of the threads were there as we talked, but I wish I had talked less, and he had talked more that night.
This section first appeared in a slightly different form as Chapter 9 of The Vortex Souvenir Book, by Lee Streiff, © 2000.
Ginsberg, Allen. Collected Poems 1947-1980, © Harper & Row, New York, 1984.
Kramer Jane. “Paterfamilias-1”, The New Yorker, August 17, 1968: 33.
Whereatt, Robert. “Poet Says City Trains, Then Stifles Its Talent”, The Wichita Eagle, February 6, 1966.