Cary Nelson: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra"

More than most Vietnam poems, Ginsberg’s long Witchita Vortex Sutra" is permeated with the managerial rhetoric and political slogans of the war. The poem is an immensely self-conscious but rather notational diary of a car ride toward the city of the title. Ginsberg records some of what he sees, in descriptive passages often sparse and underplayed though careful and appreciative, and includes fragments of radio and newspaper reports. As he has so many times before, he invokes Whitman and assumes his role: "Come lovers of Lincoln and Omaha, / hear my soft voice at last ... O Man of America, be born." Ginsberg is fully committed to the role, but more consistently mild and self-deprecating about its efficacy than his critics usually recognize. That reticence may help substantially to assist the poem in surviving. Ginsberg manages, in effect, to call on Whitman's prophetic posture, to invoke the role and its still powerful symbolism, while exhibiting no conviction that anyone will heed his voice. The language of the war is deplored, but with regret and fatalistic humor rather than with self-righteousness. Much more than most poets, he recognizes that the war for the majority of Americans was only language and photography. "Rusk says Toughness / Essential for Peace," Ginsberg notes, and describes "Vietcong losses leveling up three five zero zero" as "headline language poetry, nine decades after Democratic Vistas." "On the other side of the planet," Ginsberg reminds us, "flesh soft as a Kansas girl's / ripped open by metal explosion." There is "shrapnelled / throbbing meat / While this American nation argues war" with "conflicting language, language / proliferating in airwaves."

Interspersed with this reportage are the vignettes of silent Kansas landscapes and Ginsberg's own comments. He mocks the rhetoric of politicians, pleads with, teases, and challenges his American audience--"Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?"--and calls on a pantheon of gods to come to his aid: "Come to my lone presence / into this Vortex named Kansas." Yet Ginsberg's voice never dominates. We no longer have the insistent personal lamentation that carries the listings of his earlier poems. His presence here is intermittent, as if he realizes that while "almost all our language" is being "taxed by war" a poet cannot shape it to his will. The poem, then, seems only partly to belong to Ginsberg. History writes much of the text, and Ginsberg can try to identify what history has written, but he cannot pretend to dominate it. The rhythm of alternating vantage points carries us through to the end; the poem is remarkably effective and even hopeful about the possibility for intimacy and joy despite the war's toll on all of us. Yet the poem is finally only elegiac about the vocation of poetry. There is little left for poets to do, and no convincing reason for them to do even that. Nonetheless, Ginsberg manages a gesture whose political significance is precisely its powerlessness. If the war for us is language, he will let it end on his tongue. It is, he writes, an "Act done by my own voice" and "published to my own senses": "I lift my voice aloud" and "pronounce the words beginning my own millenium, I here declare the end of the War." It is a poignant, extraordinary moment, utterly gratuitous though an exemplary lesson and grandly Whitmanesque in its way. Yet it gives back to the rude history written by politicians all but the speech of vision and witness.

Hearing Ginsberg read "Wichita Vortex Sutra" during the war was exhilarating. In a large audience the declaration of the war's end was collectively purgative. The text of the poem retains that fragile, deluded but dramatic effectiveness because it registers its unresolvable ambiguities with such clarity.

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Criticism Overview
Title Cary Nelson: On "Wichita Vortex Sutra" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cary Nelson Criticism Target Allen Ginsberg
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry
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