The Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 557

“Wichita Vortex Sutra” is a long poem (690 lines) in free verse that is divided into two main parts. Part 1 (156 lines) was actually written the day after part 2 (534 lines); the poem was written on February 14 and 15, 1966. The word “sutra” in the title is the Sanskrit word for thread, connective cord, or rule, and is used in a religious context to denote any of the sermons of the Buddha. Situated near the geographic center of the continental United States, Wichita, Kansas, is, for Allen Ginsberg, also the cultural heart of the country. Overwhelmingly white, Christian, and conservative, Wichita is the quintessential expression of mainstream America, the metaphoric axis of its violently whirling vortex. In terms of sound sense, Wichita (though an Indian name) evokes the word “witch,” thus conjuring images of sorcery, witchcraft, evil portents, and America’s Puritan heritage. So, taken as a whole, the title employs alliteration as it ironically juxtaposes Buddhism and Christianity, order and chaos, prayer and violence, and suggests an incantation or sermon meant to admonish, and possibly even exorcise, America.

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Written in the first person, the poem describes a 250-mile bus ride (south on Route 77) from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Wichita, Kansas, on a bleak Sunday afternoon in midwinter. (Indeed, the route from Lincoln to Wichita traces a kind of sutra—a thread or connective cord—between the two cities.) In terms of narrative strategy, the poet shifts between vivid descriptions of the rural midwestern landscape, quotations from contemporary newspaper reports, free-associative meditations on the Vietnam War then raging, the larger history of the Cold War, and the state of America’s soul. The form of the poem, philosophical meditation thinly disguised as travelogue, may owe something to “Travels in North America” by the Nebraskan poet Weldon Kees, a native of Beatrice—one of the towns that the bus passes through on its way to Wichita.

Rife with hyperbolic, angry, and plaintive exclamations arranged in uneven lines spread over long, loosely structured stanzas, the poem does not offer a concise or neatly defined argument. Nonetheless, it does manifest a coherent polemic. As is characteristic of so much of his poetry, Ginsberg starts out by lamenting the sexual and emotional repression that is at the root of the terrible loneliness of American life: “to speak my lonesomeness in a car,/ because not only my lonesomeness/ it’s Ours, all over America.” He then echoes his hero, Walt Whitman, in calling for a renaissance of joyful feeling: “No more fear of tenderness, much delight in weeping, ecstasy/ in singing, laughter rises that confounds/ staring Idiot mayors/ and stony politicians eyeing/ Thy breast,/ O Man of America, be born!” Ultimately, though, the poet’s main concern is with language, particularly its grotesque misuse in the service of militarism: “I search for the language/ that is also yours—/ almost all our language has been taxed by war.” Much of the poem is concerned with exposing and denouncing “language abused/ for Advertisement,/ language used/ like magic for power on the planet.” However, the poem also envisions positive alternatives. Counterpoised against the distorted language of the media, politicians, and “U.S. military spokesmen,” the poet offers as exemplar the visionary language of his friend, Bob Dylan: “His youthful voice making glad/ the brown endless meadows/ His tenderness penetrating aether,/ soft prayer on the airwaves,/ Language, language, and sweet music too.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332

Ginsberg’s poetic approach might be best described as historical stream-of-consciousness. Like Whitman, Ginsberg starts with the consciousness of the individual self and expands its purview to encompass the putative consciousness of American society as a whole—and, by extension, of the entire universe (“I am the Universe tonite”). As a poem ultimately about the United States, much of the imagery of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” consists of precise and telling descriptions of the American landscape: “Prehistoric excavation, Apache Uprising/ in the drive-in theater/ Shelling Bombing Range mapped in the distance,/ Crime Prevention Show, sponsor Wrigley’s Spearmint,/ Dinosaur Sinclair advertisement, glowing green—.” Here and elsewhere, the scenery is charged with metaphoric significance; seemingly banal landmarks act as synedoches for American commercialism, militarism, police repression, and the exploitation of resources and other peoples.

As Ginsberg gets closer to Wichita, “the heart of the Vortex,/ where anxiety rings,” his concern with the degradation of language becomes more urgent. Accordingly, he summons his bardic powers to effect a ritual transformation of the language through his own utterances: “I call all Powers of imagination/ to my sideto make ProphecyCome to my lone presence/ into this Vortex named Kansas/ I lift my voice aloud,/ make Mantra of American language now,/ I here declare the end of the War!”

As it nears culmination, the poem gathers momentum and takes on aspects of a shaman’s chant as the word “language” is more frequently interjected: “U.S. Military Spokesman/ Language language/ Cong death toll/ has soared to 100 in First Air Cavalry/ Division’s Sector of/ Language language/ Operation White Wing near Bong Son/ Some of the/ Language language/ Communist/ Language language soldiers/ charged so desperately/ they were struck with six or seven bullets before they fell.” Thus, the poet uses the very word “language” as a kind of linguistic solvent to destabilize and overturn that which the word (self-reflexively) denotes. False, degraded language must be deconstructed and banished before a more truthful language can be uttered in its place.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 198

“Allen Ginsberg.” In The Beats: A Literary Reference, edited by Matt Theado. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004.

Hyde, Lewis, ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984.

Kashner, Sam. When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

McDarrah, Fred W. A Beat Generation Album. New York: Thunder’s Mouth, 2003.

Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Paris: 1958-1963. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.

Molesworth, Charles. “Republican Objects and Utopian Moments: The Poetry of Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg.” In The Fierce Embrace. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1979.

Morgan, Bill, ed. The Works of Allen Ginsberg, 1941-1994: A Descriptive Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995,

Morgan, Bill, and Bob Rosenthal, eds. Best Minds: A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg. New York: Lospecchio, 1986.

Mottram, Eric. Allen Ginsberg in the Sixties. London: Unicorn Press, 1972.

Portuges, Paul. The Visionary Poetics of Allen Ginsberg. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erikson, 1978.

Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

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