Local

Celebrating Allen Ginsberg 50 years after ‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’ (+video)

2016: Retracing Allen Ginsberg's steps through Wichita

An excerpt from Allen Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra." The poem is packed with Wichita references from his time spent here, such as the Eagle-Beacon newspaper, Union Station and the Eaton Hotel.
Up Next
An excerpt from Allen Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra." The poem is packed with Wichita references from his time spent here, such as the Eagle-Beacon newspaper, Union Station and the Eaton Hotel.

Even now, 50 Februarys after he wrote the “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” Allen Ginsberg’s words sting and shock.

The hip, flower-powered, counterculture writer was drawn to Wichita in the winter of 1966, fascinated by the fact that so many of his friends had one thing in common – they once lived in Wichita.

Ginsberg arrived amidst controversy: He was a homosexual. Known to use illegal drugs. An anti-war activist. The raw language of his poems repulsed Bible Belt America.

Police watched. Wannabes gathered to watch his Vortex tour.

It is a moment in Kansas literary history where Kansas is this happening place. We often think of Lawrence as being the literary hub, but this is a moment in time where Kansas meets the Beats – and the hub is Wichita. It is definitely worth celebrating.

Thomas Fox Averill, Kansas historian and professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka

“It is a moment in Kansas literary history where Kansas is this happening place,” said Thomas Fox Averill, Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.

“We often think of Lawrence as being the literary hub, but this is a moment in time where Kansas meets the Beats – and the hub is Wichita. It is definitely worth celebrating.”

Beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday, Wichita State University will host a Wichita Vortex Anniversary, celebrating the three weeks 50 years ago that Ginsberg spent in Wichita writing his best-known anti-war poem, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.”

An excerpt from Allen Ginsberg's "Wichita Vortex Sutra." The poem is packed with Wichita references from his time spent here, such as the Eagle-Beacon newspaper, Union Station and the Eaton Hotel.

Why Wichita?

Ginsberg rolled into Wichita in February 1966 along with his friends Peter and Julius Orlovsky. He had been awarded a $6,000 Guggenheim grant and used it to travel.

During the 1950s, he had risen to national prominence as a counterculture Beat Generation writer along with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. He helped influence cultural icons such as Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary and Bob Dylan.

In 1956 his legendary poem “Howl” was published. It began:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked …”

Ginsberg is credited with the term “flower power,” a phrase that helped identify the hippie generation.

He was 40 years old that February when he arrived in Wichita in the back of a VW bus. Angry about Vietnam, he spoke into a tape recorder while blending his impressions of the landscape and news of the day.

Locally, he was friends with Charles Plymell, a Wichita beat writer who was born in Holcomb. Plymell, as part of the Beat Generation, had shared a house with Ginsberg during the 1950s in San Francisco.

In Wichita, Ginsberg frequented Moody’s Skidrow Beanery, 627 E. Douglas, a gathering place for the homeless, down-and-out and far-out Beats near the railroad tracks.

The Beanery had a sign, “Through these doors pass the greatest bums on Earth – our customers.”

During the post-war years, Wichita is this very quirky mixture that produces Beat poets and yet is the center of the John Birch Society, and he (Ginsberg) highlights that.

Jay Price, chair of Wichita State University history department

“What Ginsberg’s presence in Wichita does is that it calls attention to significant folks coming out of Wichita,” said Jay Price, chairman of WSU’s history department. “During the post-war years, Wichita is this very quirky mixture that produces Beat poets and yet is the center of the John Birch Society, and he highlights that.”

The Beanery was owned by Moody Connell, and by the 1960s it had become a dilapidated downtown diner. Eager to rid downtown of transients, the police would often cite the Beanery for building-code violations.

When the diner began to attract middle-class youths who were experimenting with the “Beat movement,” the harassment became a frequent news story.

In addition to the building violations, police accused the Beanery – located where Naftzger Park is today – of promoting obscene art and poetry. Connell kept the Beanery open under a series of names, including the Wichita Vortex Theater.

And, at the time, Price said, WSU officials were not quite sure they wanted the attention from Ginsberg.

Ginsberg wanted to be provocative and rattle cages. He wanted to make you think about the placidness of the Great Plains and the horrors of Vietnam.

Jay Price, chair of Wichita State University history department

“Ginsberg wanted to be provocative and rattle cages,” Price said. “He wanted to make you think about the placidness of the Great Plains and the horrors of Vietnam.”

Kansas places

After 50 years, Ginsberg’s poetry is still fraught with sexual metaphors and jabs at middle-class values and political and social injustices.

In his poem, Ginsberg mentions Kansas City, Marysville, Wichita, Junction City, Independence, El Dorado, Salina, McPherson, Hutchinson, Abilene and Florence.

He refers to The Wichita Eagle and how he walked “past the newspaper language factory” and “under Union Station railroad bridge on Douglas to the center of the Vortex.”

In an interview with The Eagle, Ginsberg told a reporter: “The city imposes a dark night on the soul of its youth.”

The Beanery was eventually closed and razed in a downtown urban revitalization project.

Ginsberg died in 1997, at age 70.

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner

‘Wichita Vortex Sutra’ 50th anniversary

The celebration begins at 1 p.m. Sunday in Room 233 of the Rhatigan Student Center at Wichita State University. The event is free and open to the public.

The panel includes Roger Irwin, retired professor of comparative religions; Dan Rouser, a former Wichita Eagle and Beacon staff member; James W. Johnson, independent curator; and Jay Price, professor of history, who will moderate the event.

They will discuss Ginsburg’s stay and present accounts from participants of the readings.

Jedd Beaudoin, KMUW host, will then read “Wichita Vortex Sutra.”

Following the event, there will be a reception at Ulrich Museum of Art.

  Comments