Fifty years ago this month, City Lights Books debuted 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 sixties counterculture and youth rebellion, Howl went on to sell over more than a million copies and influence a generation of poets.
This month, City Lights is commemorating Howl’s fiftieth anniversary with the publication of Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, a Bill Morgan–edited anthology that collects correspondence, commentaries, and photographs documenting the publication and defense of Howl. Another anthology commemorating “Howl,” Jason Shinder’s The Poem That Changed America, debuted earlier this year, and fiftieth-anniversary celebration galas are slated (or have already happened) in places like San Francisco, Montreal, and London.
Amid the festivities, however, it’s easy to forget how dated “Howl” can sound in 2006. Fifty years removed from the social constraints that made it seem scandalous in 1956, Ginsberg’s poem has become a victim of its own success — a quaint reminder that profane, stream-of-consciousness verse is no longer shocking or significant. Written as a Whitmanesque ode to id in an era of repression, “Howl” now brings to mind reality-TV programming — a drug-addled, homoerotic variation of “Jackass,” wherein Ginsberg gleefully recounts how he and his Ivy League buddies slummed it with the impoverished and the insane, “burned cigarette holes in their arms,” “walked all night with their shoes full of blood,” “jumped in the filthy Passaic,” “threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers,” and “threw up groaning into the bloody toilet.”
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. Though the language of the poem is specific to the Vietnam War (which was escalating at the time), it certainly speaks to the conditions of 2006 — not only in its refrain about how empty language started, but cannot end, a military action, but also in its riff on the contradictions between distant Asia and the Middle American conservatism that has enabled a war there; in its alarm at the numbing impact of global telecommunications and the media preoccupation with statistics; in its despair at the hypocritical politicians and corporations that are profiting from the war. Fragments of the poem first appeared in the May 27, 1966, issue of LIFE, and the full text later debuted in a City Lights “Pocket Poets” collection entitled Planet News.
Ginsberg’s journey to Kansas, which he undertook in a Volkswagen van purchased with Guggenheim grant money, stemmed from his long-standing fascination with the state (in “Howl,” he mentions Kansas as the place where “the cosmos instinctively vibrated at their feet”). In one sense, Ginsberg felt that Kansas was politically representative of Middle American support for war and the military-industrial complex — a stereotype that presaged its current “red state” reputation by several decades. But beyond political generalizations, Ginsberg saw Kansas as the mystic center of America, celebrated by Whitman in Leaves of Grass (“chants going forth from the center, from Kansas, and thence equidistant / shooting in pulses of fire ceaseless to vivify all”). The poet saw Wichita, the ultimate destination of his road-trip poem, as the symbolic heart of this transcendental American vortex.
In the early verses of “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” 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’s 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.” One early section in particular sounds eerily familiar:
Aiken Republican on the radio 60,000
Northvietnamese troops now infiltrated but over 250,000
South Vietnamese armed men
our Enemy —
Not Hanoi our enemy
Not China our enemy
The Viet Cong!
McNamara made a “bad guess”
“Bad Guess?” chorused the Reporters.
Yes, no more than a Bad Guess, in 1962
Ginsberg is referring to former Vermont Senator George Aiken and Johnson-era Pentagon chief Robert McNamara — but he just as well could be referring to Joe Lieberman and Donald Rumsfeld. Substitute a few more terms — “Arabs” and “Muslims” for Hanoi and China; “insurgents” for the Viet Cong; “2003” for 1962, etc. — and this section could read like a recent transcript from CNN or FOX News.
As Ginsberg continues his southward journey to Wichita, his poem notes the stunted attention span of 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 concedes that his very medium — language — has already been “taxed by war”:
The war is language,
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
-- funky warlocks operating on guesswork,
handmedown mandrake terminology
that never worked…
…Sorcerer’s Apprentices who lost control
of the simplest broomstick in the world:
Just like “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, Yaweh, 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,” Ginsberg 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 the President execute his own desire --
this Act done by my own voice,
nameless Mystery --
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.
In a way, Ginsberg is inverting the rhetorical technique that the Athenian statesman Pericles used in his Peloponnesian War funeral oration (cribbed later by Lincoln for the Gettysburg Address): Poetic language cannot properly commemorate the horrors of war, sure — but more alarmingly, it has been diluted to the point where it has lost its effectiveness in preventing those horrors in the first place. 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.
Four decades later, a vivid realization of Ginsberg’s prophecy would appear to be Poets Against the War, an anthology, edited by Sam Hamill, which was assembled in response to Laura Bush’s apolitical White House symposium on American poetry shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. At best, the poems in this antiwar tome share Ginsberg’s poignant awareness of poetry’s political limitations; at worst, the poems are just as paranoid, hyperbolic, and self-righteous as the neoconservative justifications that led to the war. In between are a lot of poems that remind us, with the reflexive urgency of a Miss America contestant, that war is bad and should be avoided.
Moreover, in the anthology’s introduction, there is a kind of pathos in Hamill’s giddiness over his public diss of the First Lady, and the “historic” act of having used the Internet to rally 11,000 antiwar poets (a figure dwarfed, no doubt, by the number of Americans who downloaded “MILF” porn during the same time period). Ultimately, Poets Against the War feels less like a meaningful political statement than a celebration of its own existence — an ode to what Don DeLillo called “the language of being noticed.” Hamill’s project may have been a comforting gesture of solidarity for those involved, but it adds nothing to the somber revelations Ginsberg spelled out in “Wichita Vortex Sutra.”
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 fifty is a rounder number than forty, 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 our own limitations.