Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” – Parts 1 & 2

Our discussion of Allen Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra is here:  Wichita Vortex Sutra Part 1 and Wichita Vortex Sutra Part 2  The poem is long and varied and so interesting that it required an extended discussion in two parts.

This is one of the very powerful anti-war poems that came out of the Viet Nam protests of the 60’s, and it is also one of the most powerful anti-war poems of any time.  Many thanks to the Ginsberg estate for allowing us to use Ginsberg’s readings of the poem.  The page for the estate contains great information about the poet, at the Allen Ginsberg Project.  The Ginsberg recordings are from PennSound’s Ginsberg page, which also contains other readings by and about the poet.

Many things make this poem unique, including the method of its composition:  It originated as Ginsberg traveled across the midwest speaking into little tape recorder, making what some have called “a proto-podcast.”  About its composition he said,  “With pauses maybe of a minute or two minutes between each line as I’m formulating it in my mind and the recording … I was in the back of a bus, talking to myself, except with a tape recorder. Every time I said something interesting to myself I put it on tape.”

The concerns of the poem are about the Vietnam war, but about more than war.  It speaks about language, and about America, and evinces a belief that the war is in part caused or perhaps allowed by the corrupted language in use today in  media and in politics, and the conservatism and attendant repression of our noblest and most free impulses that began in and continues in certain parts of the country.  The speaker of this poem believes that purifying the language and opening ourselves to the great and powerful transcendent figures of language, literature, and spirituality can free us all and end the war:

I lift my voice aloud,

make Mantra of American language now,

I here declare the end of the War!

There is so much in this poem, and this may be a reason why it seems not to date, as so many other topical anti-war poems from that time have done.  Read the poem!

A little about the poet:  Allen Ginsberg, died in 1997.  He was an American original whose career followed an incredible arc, beginning in controversy and ending with the poet unquestionably established as an icon and part of the poetry firmament with poems widely anthologized, praised, and commented on.  Ginsberg was one of the leading figures of both the 50’s Beat Generation and the counterculture that followed. One of his best known poems, “Howl,” was the subject of an obscenity trial, as it depicted heterosexual and homosexual sex at a time when sodomy laws were effective in every U.S. state. In ruling that Howl was not obscene, Judge Clayton Horn said, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”

With his anti-war and anti-violence positions, and his fervent embrace of individual freedom, he took part in decades of non-violent political protest against everything from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs.  He wrote about his concerns.  His collection The Fall of America shared the annual U.S. National Book Award for Poetry in 1974. In 1979 he received the National Arts Club gold medal and was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1995 for his book Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992.

Participants in this discussion are Phil Memmer, Executive Director of the Syracuse YMCA Downtown Writer’s Center (DWC); Stephen Kuusisto (of course), Director of the Syracuse University Honors Program / Professor of Disability Studies for the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies in the School of Education, and me, Bob  Herz, founder & editor of Nine Mile Magazine, and publisher-editor of the W.D. Hoffstadt & Sons press.

Music for this discussion was supplied by the brilliant Bob Perry.  The music is from his song, “Slip Up.”

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