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.