Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 494

Though on one level it is certainly an antiwar poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” transcends both its genre and the specific historical circumstances that occasioned its creation. A fundamental premise of the poem is that language, though a simple tool, is also a tremendously powerful and potentially dangerous tool, much more powerful and dangerous than is generally assumed. More than merely expressing consciousness, language shapes consciousness and therefore controls history.

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As an example of the reality-transforming power of language, Ginsberg cites an utterance by President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of defense, Robert S. McNamara, who “made a ‘bad guess’/ ‘Bad guess?’ chorused the Reporters./ Yes, no more than a Bad Guess, in 1962/ 8000 American Troops handle the/ Situation.’” McNamara’s sloppy and infelicitous use of language may or may not actually have helped to precipitate the disastrous U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Ginsberg dramatizes McNamara’s statement because he sees it as typical of a chronic pattern of U.S. government deceit, exaggeration, misapprehension, and misstatement that marked the entire history of the Cold War: “Communism is a 9 letter word/ used by inferior magicians with/ the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold.” In the mouths of such men, language ceases to have any mimetic significance; it is reduced to gibberish, an abstruse and secretive currency of power. Indeed, as if language were not debased enough, new terms are coined to obscure reality further: “General Taylor Limited Objectives/ Owls from Pennsylvania/ Clark’s Face Open Ended/ Dove’s Apocalypse.”

Ginsberg also asserts that America’s corporate media is ideologically all of a piece, and is at one with the government, in the creation and dissemination of lies and distortions that further oppression and war: “N B C B S U P A I N S L I F E/ Time Mutual presents/ World’s Largest Camp Comedy:/ Magic in Vietnam—/ reality turned inside out.” Yet against such concerted and powerful forces of mystification, the lone poet also has enormous power: the power to name evil. The evil that Ginsberg identifies as underlying America’s war on language, on nature, on its own and other peoples, is a Puritanical, life-denying strain that is integral to the American character.

Engaging in the sort of instructive hyperbole that marked his treatment of the McNamara statement, Ginsberg closes the poem with an arresting assertion: “Carry Nation began the war on Vietnam here/ with an angry smashing ax/ attacking Wine—/ Here fifty years ago, by her violence/ began a vortex of hatred that defoliated the Mekong Delta—.” The idea that Carry Nation (the famous midwestern temperance advocate who marched into barrooms and smashed bottles and fixtures with a hatchet) somehow instigated the Vietnam War is not literally true. What is true is the spirit of the statement—its equation of prohibitionist fervor with interventionist arrogance. To Ginsberg’s way of thinking, both events come from a characteristically American intolerance of difference, an insatiable desire to control or to destroy.

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