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Wichita Vortex Sutra

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Title: Wichita Vortex Sutra  
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Subject: Philip Glass, Hair (musical), Wichita, Kansas, Hydrogen Jukebox, Solo Piano (Philip Glass album), The Fall of America: Poems of These States, Planet News, Rolf Potts
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Wichita Vortex Sutra

"Wichita Vortex Sutra" is an anti-war poem by Allen Ginsberg, written in 1966. It appears in his collections Planet News and The Fall of America: Poems of These States. On its 40th anniversary Rolf Potts, writing in The Nation, described it as "an elegy for the power of language in an age of competing information."[1]

History and description

"Wichita Vortex Sutra" originated as a voice recording that Ginsberg made with an Uher tape recorder as he travelled across the mid-west.[1] He composed it off the top of his head as he spoke into the recording device. He stated that "these lines in 'Wichita' are arranged according to their organic time-spacing as per the mind's coming up with the phrases and the mouth pronouncing them. 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".[2]

Ginsberg juxtaposes images of the landscape of Kansas with snippets of media reports about the war in Vietnam and links the violence of war with the conservatism of the heartland. He believes that Wichita, where Carrie Nation championed the temperance movement, "began a vortex of hatred that defoliated the Mekong Delta."[2] In Buddhism, the term "sutra" refers mostly to canonical scriptures, many of which are regarded as records of the oral teachings of Gautama Buddha.

"Wichita Vortex Sutra" speaks of the power of language and the poet's desire to end war by making a mantra.[2] Lines from the poem include, "Rusk says Toughness / Essential for Peace ... Vietcong losses leveling up three five zero zero ... headline language poetry ... On the other side of the planet ... flesh soft as a Kansas girl's / ripped open by metal explosion ... shrapnelled / throbbing meat / While this American nation argues war / conflicting language, language / proliferating in airwaves."[2] Potts writes:
"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 ... 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."[1]
James F. Mersmann, in his book "Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry Against the War," writes:
A chief virtue of "Wichita Vortex Sutra" is that it makes the reader experience the proliferation and abuse of language. Its technique is to notice and reproduce the language that inundates the senses everyday, and in doing so it makes one painfully aware that in every case language is used not to communicate truth but to manipulate the hearer.[2]

In culture

Music was written for Ginsberg's performance of the poem by Philip Glass and included in albums Hydrogen Jukebox and Solo Piano,[3] as well as Sally Whitwell's ARIA Award-winning Mad Rush: Solo Piano Music of Philip Glass. Phrases from "Wichita Vortex Sutra" ("ripped open by metal explosion ... caught in barbed wire, fire ball bullet shock") are also used in the song "Three-Five-Zero-Zero" from the rock musical Hair.[4] Artemis Records released a live recording of the poem on CD in 2004.[5]

In January 2010, the poem was performed on stage by Ira Glass to Philip Glass's live accompaniment at the SoHo Apple store in New York City. Ira Glass, of NPR’s This American Life, is Philip Glass's cousin.[6]



  • Miller, Scott. Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of Hair (Heinemann, 2003) ISBN 0-325-00556-7

External links

  • Excerpts from poem:

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