Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 494 words.)