Howl: The Failed Censorship

January 17, 2017 History

“The best method of censorship is by the people as self guardians of public opinion and not by government “.

-Judge Clayton Horn, San Francisco, 1957.

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Prolific, provocative, and revealing of its time. A shot rang out and America’s counter culture came running. The shot was fired by Allen Ginsberg, a poet and a prophet of his time musing about the ills of society in his poem entitled “Howl.” With this culturally shocking composition came a paramount urge to censor it using any means necessary. This single poem sparked a cataclysm in the fiber of American society that has resulted in the expressionistic freedom that we experience at present. Its words and their meanings sparked immense discussion ranging from disdain to total envelopment. .

In the Fall, of 1955 at a coffee house in San Francisco called the Six Galler,. Allen Ginsberg had organized a poetry reading in which fellow poet Kenneth Rexroth wass to read and introduce five other poets including Ginsberg, Lamantia, McClure, Snyders and Phillip Whalen. At the tail end of the poetry reading Allan Ginsberg took center stage to give the first reading of “Howl” – a work he wrote two months prior. Jack Kerouac was there passing around jugs of wine which he had generously brought to add to the mood of the gathering. Ginsberg began with the opening lines:.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, .

starving hysterical and naked,.

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for .

an angry fix ,.

angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient and heavenly .

connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night-.

“Howl” goes on to encompass a lengthy three part poem which Lawrence Ferlinghetti owner and co-founder of City Lights Bookstore decided he could do nothing but to publish and the rest, as they say, was literary censorship history. The public and legal backlash that this poem, and those associated with its publication, endured helped to break a 200-year-long Anglo-American judicial practice of censoring literature and art ( George-Warren 19990).


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