Wichita Vortex Sutra

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"Wichita Vortex Sutra" is an anti-war poem by Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), written in 1966. It appears in his collection Planet News and has also been published in Collected Poems 1947-1995[1] and Collected Poems 1947-1980.[2] 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."[3]

History and description[edit]

"Wichita Vortex Sutra" originated as a voice recording that Ginsberg made with an Uher tape recorder as he travelled in a bus across the Midwest.[3] He composed it by dictating the words as they came to him and speaking them into the recorder. He later said "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".[4]

Ginsberg juxtaposes images of the landscape of Kansas with snippets of media reports about the war in Vietnam and links the violence there with the conservative values of the Heartland. He believes that Wichita, where Carrie Nation championed the temperance movement, "began a vortex of hatred that defoliated the Mekong Delta."[4] 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.[4] 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."[4] 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.[3]

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.[4]

In culture[edit]

Music was written by Philip Glass to accompany Ginsberg's performance of the poem, and was included in Solo Piano and his chamber opera Hydrogen Jukebox,[5] as well as Sally Whitwell's 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.[6]

Artemis Records released a live recording of the poem on CD in 2004.[7]

In January 2010, Glass's cousin Ira performed the poem with Glass's live accompaniment at the SoHo Apple store in New York City.[8]

It was also used in Ang Lee's 2016 film Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, which focuses on a group of soldiers who take a short leave home after a win battle in Iraq.


  1. ^ Ginsberg, Allen (2007). Collected poems, 1947-1995 (1st Harper Perennial Modern Classics ed.). New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN 0061139750. 
  2. ^ Ginsberg, Allen (1988). Collected poems, 1947-1980 (1st Perennial Library ed.). New York: Perennial Library. ISBN 0060914947. 
  3. ^ a b c Potts, Rolf; November 14, 2006; The Last Anti War Poem, thenation.com, retrieved Feb 27, 2014
  4. ^ a b c d e On "Wichita Vortex Sutra", english.illinois.edu, retrieved Dec 10, 2009
  5. ^ Philip Glass: Music: Wichita Vortex Sutra, philipglass.com, retrieved Dec 10, 2009
  6. ^ Miller p. 92
  7. ^ Wichita Vortex Sutra CD on Amazon.com
  8. ^ PHILIP GLASS @ APPLE SOHO, quietcolor.com, January 25, 2010, accessed October 12, 2010


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

External links[edit]