Fifty years ago this month, City Lights Books published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems–a collection of ranting, ecstatic verses that challenged the conservatism of Eisenhower-era America. Within a year of its publication, Howl had become the focus of an obscenity trial that ultimately redefined the limits of free expression in America. Considered by many to be a triumphant literary precursor to ’60s counterculture and youth rebellion, Howl and Other Poems went on to sell more than a million copies and influence a generation of poets.
No doubt Howl will continue to be recognized as an essential twentieth-century poem, but if we aspire this year to recognize the anniversary of a Ginsberg poem that still seems relevant and challenging, we should fast-forward ten years to 1966, when the iconic Beat poet penned “Wichita Vortex Sutra”–an antiwar lament that carries an observational honesty not present in the MTV din of Howl.
“Wichita Vortex Sutra” originated as a kind of proto-podcast that Ginsberg intoned into an Uher tape recorder while traveling across the American heartland in the winter of 1966. In the early verses Ginsberg makes his way south into Kansas from Nebraska, juxtaposing images of the Great Plains landscape with fragmented media reports about the distant war in Vietnam. Reciting the bloodless newspeak that will sound familiar to anyone who has followed the current Iraq War (vague phrases like “tactical bombing” and “limited objectives”), Ginsberg eventually grows impatient, dismissing official military body counts as “the latest quotation in the human meat market.”
As Ginsberg continues his southward journey to Wichita, his poem notes the stunted attention span of the mass media, mixing the empty language of war (“Rusk Says Toughness Essential For Peace”; “Vietnam War Brings Prosperity”) with the noises of advertising and entertainment (“the honkytonk tinkle/of a city piano/to calm the nerves of taxpaying housewives of a Sunday morn”). Television images, which reduce everything to a shorthand of analogy and synecdoche, gloss over the human suffering (“electric dots on Television–/fuzzy decibels registering/the mammal voiced howl/from the outskirts of Saigon to console model picture tubes”).
The poet attempts to use the warmth and sensuality of the human body to make the distant violence urgent and real (“flesh soft as a Kansas girl’s/ripped open by metal explosion/…on the other side of the planet”), but he concedes that his very medium–language–has already been “taxed by war”:
The war is language, language abused for Advertisement, language used like magic for power on the planet: Black Magic language, formulas for reality– Communism is a 9 letter word used by inferior magicians with the wrong alchemical formula for transforming earth into gold
Just as “terrorism” (another nine-letter word) has become an incantation that aims to blur all manner of failures and lies by “inferior magicians” within the Bush Administration, the word “Communism” was central to the alchemical formula for Johnson-era spin and manipulation–a drab reminder that language could obscure truth as readily as express it.
Despairing at the idea that the power of poetry was being lost in a sea of proliferating and contradictory language, Ginsberg invokes icons of transcendence–Christ, Allah, Jaweh, William Blake, various Indian holy men–to help him reclaim language for its higher purposes. Sixty miles from Wichita, having been “almost in tears to know/how to speak the right language,” he calls these “Powers of imagination/to my side in this auto to make Prophecy”:
I lift my voice aloud,
make Mantra of American language now,
I here declare the end of the War!
Let the States tremble,
let the Nation weep,
let Congress legislate its own delight
let the President execute his own desire–
this Act done by my own voice,
published to my own senses,
blissfully received by my own form
approved with pleasure by my sensations
manifestation of my very thought
accomplished in my own imagination
all realms within my consciousness fulfilled
In using explicitly Whitmanesque language to make his startling assertion–that war can be declared over by the powers of poetry–Ginsberg’s apparent aim is to reclaim American language for the exuberant vision set forth in Leaves of Grass. But instead of ending on this powerful and triumphant note, the poet brings us back into the mundane reality of his surroundings–a “stop for tea & gas” near Florence; a Bob Dylan song on the radio; his continuing journey past “populaces cement-networked on flatness.” As he drives the final stretch into Wichita, the dull onslaught of empty language continues, “now in black print/daily consciousness”: death tolls, battle statistics, political leveraging. Amid the euphemistic vagueness of war-operation nomenclature (“Harvest Moon last December”; “Operation White Wing near Bong Son”), the poet inserts a sad refrain–“Language, language”–that is repeated seven times in less than a page.
Thus, moments after Ginsberg appears to be trumpeting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s assertion that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” he quietly concedes to W.H. Auden’s notion that, politically at least, “poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/in the valley of its own making.” Poetic language might aspire to have political potency in a censored society, where brave dissent could be heard amid the repressive silence–but Ginsberg’s free, media-saturated America had come to the point where truth and untruth, politics and entertainment, had become so intermixed as to become indistinguishable. In declaring war over “by my own voice,” he is ironically underscoring the ambiguity and powerlessness of poetry as a political gesture. Consequently, “Wichita Vortex Sutra” reads like a prophetic and final antiwar poem, an elegy for the power of language in an age of competing information.
Because Ginsberg’s revelations are difficult–because they seem to question the potency of poetry–it’s no surprise that the anniversary of “Wichita Vortex Sutra” has been ignored this year, despite the poem’s jarring relevance to the current American landscape.
Instead, the poetry community will continue to focus on the anniversary of Howl–not just because 50 is a rounder number than 40, but because it’s more enjoyable to celebrate the First Amendment triumph of an old sex-and-drugs anthem than wrestle with a poem that reminds us of the limitations of language in a political world.