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Picture of Allen Ginsberg, Beat poet and author of Howl and Sunflower Sutra; twentieth century American Literature and poetry

March 25, 1957
Allen Ginsberg   (1926 - 1997)
Howl Heard in Court
by Steve King

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On this day in 1957, U.S. Customs agents seized 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg's Howl on the grounds of obscenity. Ginsberg had given the poem its first, legendary reading a year and a half earlier, at Six Gallery in San Francisco. In the audience were many later-famous Beat writers, among them Jack Kerouac, thumping on his wine jug and shouting "Go, Go," at the end of every long line. After the reading Kerouac told Ginsberg he was going to be famous all over San Francisco, with Kenneth Rexroth correcting this to "famous from bridge to bridge." Lawrence Ferlinghetti, already running City Lights Bookstore at this point, wrote Ginsberg a telegram: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?...." This was an echo of Emerson's famous letter to Walt Whitman a century earlier, praising Leaves of Grass:
    I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty.
It was Ferlinghetti's edition of Howl that was confiscated, leading to a trial that October -- before a judge who was a Sunday school teacher, and who had recently been in the news for sentencing five shoplifters to a screening of The Ten Commandments. Nonetheless, it was soon clear that the prosecution had little response to the long line of scholars and critics who testified to the literary importance of Howl -- many comparing it in importance to Leaves of Grass -- and the judge's ruling was unequivocal:
    I do not believe that "Howl" is without even "the slightest redeeming social importance." The first part of "Howl" presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity and mechanization leading toward war. . . . It ends in a plea for holy living. . . . In considering material claimed to be obscene it is well to remember the motto: "Honi soit qui mal y pense" [Evil to him who thinks evil].
"Thus ended," said Ferlinghetti, "one of the most irresponsible and callous police actions perpetrated west of the Rockies, not counting the treatment accorded Indians and Japanese."

In the 90s, Ginsberg was still protesting the poem's censorship, and America: "And tho I am King of May my howls & proclamations present are banned / by F.C.C. on America's electric airwaves 6 AM to midnight. . . ." The excerpt below is from the end of "Howl," where Ginsberg dreams of release from the Insane Asylum:
    I'm with you in Rockland
    where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won't let us sleep
    I'm with you in Rockland
    where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls' airplanes roaring over the roof they've come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we're free
    I'm with you in Rockland
    in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night

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Related authors:  Bob Kaufman, Charles Bukowski, Christopher Smart, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Richard Brautigan
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