In the same way I wonder about how people could possibly burn books or ban them (and it doesn’t matter how progressive you think the modern era is—there are always people), how is it that we can take artists and writers to task for what they write or for the thought crimes they allegedly commit?
Today, I wanted to take a look at the trial “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg, which is an aggressive piece of verse that really spoke volumes during the age in which it was written—-and you know it caused a good deal of debate because it whipped the California morality police into a frenzy.
“Cops Don’t Allow No Renaissance Here”
Ginsberg hadn’t even started his career as an influential Beat poet (the post-war Baby Boomer radicals) when he gave a reading of his poem “Howl” at the art house Six Gallery in North Beach, San Francisco on Oct. 7 ,1955. Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti had read “Howl” before Ginsberg presented it at the gallery that night, and he knew it was a transformative piece.
“Howl” is a poem that is technically challenging and impressive in its message, as Ginsberg was able to adeptly use his influence (Whitman and Blake) and use an amalgamated style to convey new themes. And this newness resonated with people of the age.”
“… I knew the world had been waiting for this poem, for this apocalyptic message to be articulated. It was in the air, waiting to be captured in speech. The repressive, conformist, racist, homophobic world of the 1950s cried out for it.”Ferlinghetti
The reading event featured other notable poets and by all accounts was a smashing success for the San Francisco poetry scene; additionally, it launched Ginsberg’s career. According to Ferlinghetti, after hearing the poem, and in mimicking Ralph Waldo Emerson’s message to Walt Whitman after hearing “Leaves of Grass,” he sent Ginsberg a Western Union telegram that read: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do we get the manuscript?” (Found SF).
Ferlinghetti called the 29-year-old Beat poet soon after to publish “Howl” in City Lights in 1956. After the poem’s publication in paperback, authorities promptly arrested Ferlinghetti and book seller Shigeyoshi Murao on obscenity charges. The book featured explicit four-letter-words and homosexual overtones, which the moral sensors of the 1950s disliked. After the police made their arrests, one local newspaper headline read: “Cops Don’t Allow No Renaissance Here.”
Opinions on the matter
Ferlinghetti wrote that “Howl” was targeted for more than just being “obscene by cops,” but also because, “it attacked the bare roots of our dominant culture, the very Moloch heart of our consumer society.”
Moreover, as stated by Andrew Spacey in his analysis of “Howl” for Owlcation, the poem is a “game-changer” because it adequately captured the feelings of the era. He writes: “… it expressed for the first time a modern psychological angst, an urban existence fueled by drugs, jazz, travel and expansion,” Spacey writes (Spacey).
The poem was a departure from what most writers and poetry consumers considered verse, and, because of that, it revolutionized an approach to writing. While some wrote letters criticizing Ginsberg’s poem—writers, poets, and artists unanimously criticized the trial as unnecessary censorship because the court was dealing with a true work of art.
“Mark S. Wittenberg, in the San Francisco Chronicle, represented this perspective as he stated: ‘I should say that when (Federal Collector of Customs) saw too many four letter words, he neither saw nor read anything else. Allen Ginsberg’s poem may be a lot of things…but it is not obscene” (Rehlaender).
Criminal lawyer Jake Ehrlich, and Lawrence Speiser and Albert Bendich of the ACLU defended Ferlinghetti and Murao pro bono in Aug. 1957. Ginsberg, free from arrest, wrote letters of support from outside the judicial circus.
The overall argument from The State of California (represented by Ralph McIntosh) was that the words would harm the American people in mediums other than poetry, thus the poetry must be banned, because if it appeared on the radio then it would be inappropriate. Both sets of lawyers brought up expert witnesses to discuss the poem as art or as offensive material.
“Ehrlich closed by arguing the poem is only obscene if you purposefully read it that way; he argued that just because the words may be vulgar, does not mean the message is, so this should not detract from the literature’s value. Ginsberg wrote this way to detail HIS life, HIS experiences, and it is not intended to corrupt readers.”Howl and Beyond
After spending time in consideration, Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that the poem could not be obscene because such a ruling with tamper with the First Amendment. Horn’s ruling was important because it made way for the publication of previously censored works, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.
- Rehlaender, Jamie. “A Howl of Free Expression: the 1957 Howl Obscenity Trial and Sexual Liberation.” Portland State University. March 19, 2015.
- Spacey, Andrew. “Analysis of Poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg.” Owlcation. Jan. 10, 2020. Web.
- “Howl and Beyond.” URL: https://howlandbeyond.weebly.com/the-obscenity-trial.html