As the 1960s continued, Ginsberg's fame (or notoriety) grew more widespread, and with it grew his awareness of the soapbox he'd stumbled upon. Horrified by what he saw as a bloodthirsty culture of death and violence, and simultaneously heartened by the civil rights movement, the growing youth counterculture and queer liberation, the young poet — who once aspired to become a labor lawyer — found himself becoming more and more politicized. You can see this thread traced from a poem like "Howl" and "America" to "Death to Van Gogh's Ear" or the discussion of his mother's communism in "Kaddish" and this current will further strengthen in our readings for Tuesday. The key poem here is "Wichita Vortex Sutra" — the third great epic masterpiece of his early career — and we'll discuss it in detail.
Here's a quick list of some of the major events happening in Ginsberg's life through the 1960s:
- He travels the world, starting in Paris and continuing on to Tangiers, Greece and Israel before extended stays in India (as documented in his Indian Journals) and Japan.
- He has his first psychedelic experiences with both psilocybin and LSD, courtesy of Timothy Leary, which would influence the composition of visionary poems such as "Wales Visitation."
- He testifies for the defense in the Boston obscenity trial of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch.
- He travels to Cuba, where he causes a political ruckus and is swiftly deported to Prague, where he is crowned the "King of May" (or "Kral Majales," as in the poem which documents this event), causes a political ruckus and is deported once more.
- He meets and interacts with both Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and gives a gala reading at London's Royal Albert Hall.
- He takes part in the historic Berkeley and Vancouver Poetry Conferences (in 1965 and 63, respectively) — a sign of his growing influence in the world of poetry. (You can listen to his entire Vancouver Conference reading here)
- His friend and former lover Neal Cassady dies in 1968, and Jack Kerouac's slow decline catches up with him when he dies in 1969.
- He buys a top-of-the-line Uher tape recorded with money given to him by Bob Dylan, and begins composing poems by dictation during a long drive from Los Angeles to New York, many of which would appear in his volume, The Fall of America, which won the National Book Award in 1973; a key poem of this sequence, "Wichita Vortex Sutra," appears as a chapbook on its own then is published in Planet News.
- He assumes a larger role in youth culture and politics, participating in the Human Be-In and the 1967 march on the Pentagon (as well as the 1968 protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago), and mediates a peace between the hippies and Hells Angels in San Francisco.
So, it's a busy time for Ginsberg to say the least! What we'll want to look for here is how all of these personal occurrences interact with current events in these poems — and while the war in Vietnam is a key focus, certainly other topics will come up. In addition to the personal and political, Ginsberg is also further refining and developing his spiritual side, having first studied Krishnaism while in India in the early part of the decade, and also continuing his Buddhist studies. Eventually, he'd be asked by his spiritual teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, to co-found (with poet Anne Waldman) the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University (America's only accredited Buddhist university). Much like his political views, Ginsberg would use the medium of poetry (as well as song) to spread his spiritual beliefs.
Here are our readings for Tuesday:
- I Am a Victim of Telephone (352): MP3
- Kral Majales (361): MP3
- Who Be Kind To (367): MP3
- Portland Coliseum (373)
- First Party at Ken Kesey's With Hell's Angels (382): MP3
- Wichita Vortex Sutra (402) (recordings listed below)
- Growing Old Again (431)
- Uptown (432): MP3
- City Midnight Junk Strains (465): MP3
- Wales Visitation (488): MP3
- Elegy for Neal Cassady (495): MP3
- On Neal’s Ashes (513): MP3
- Going to Chicago (514)
- Grant Park: August 28, 1968 (515)
- Car Crash (516)
- Memory Gardens (539)
- Flash Back (542)
- Graffiti 12th Cubicle Men's Room Syracuse Airport (543)
- Hum Bom! (576): MP3
- Wichita Vortex Sutra I (3:14): MP3
- Wichita Vortex Sutra II (12:52): MP3
- Wichita Vortex Sutra III (5:51): MP3
- Wichita Vortex Sutra IV (5:41): MP3
Next, here's a rather breathtaking musical setting of a long portion of the poem by Philip Glass, part of his collaboration with Ginsberg, Hydrogen Jukebox (a term you'll recall from "Howl"):
And here's a very interesting recording I uncovered a few summers back, in the tape archives of the poet Robert Creeley, which sets a lengthy excerpt of the poem to musical soundscape including chanting, sound effects and a snippet of Bob Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately," among other noises:
- Wichita Vortex Sutra (28:00): MP3
Finally, here are some supplemental links:
- "The Last Anti-War Poem" — Rolf Pitts' 2006 article in The Believer that argues, on the 50th anniversary of "Howl," that we should instead be celebrating the 40th anniversary of "Wichita Vortex Sutra," a poem that continues to speak to our society in ways that "Howl" does not [link]
- Footage from the May Day 1965 parade in Prague, including Ginsberg's coronation as King of May (or Kral Majales in the native parlance) [link]
Ginsberg reads "Kral Majales" at City Lights Books
Ginsberg on conservative pundit William F. Buckley's Firing Line in 1968
Ginsberg reads "Wales Visitation" in its entirety on the same program
Ginsberg was present when John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded "Give Peace a Chance" during their 1969 "Bed-In" in Toronto (and sings on the track)
Ginsberg leads chanting on the shores of Lake Michigan during the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968