Allen Ginsberg & Howl
Allen Ginsberg (1926 - 1997) was an American poet and one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. He vigorously opposed militarism, economic materialism and sexual repression. Ginsberg is best known for his epic poem "Howl", in which he denounced what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the United States.
In 1957, "Howl" attracted widespread publicity when it became the subject of an obscenity trial, as it depicted heterosexual and homosexual sex at a time when sodomy laws made homosexual acts a crime in every U.S. state. "Howl" reflected Ginsberg's own homosexuality and his relationships with a number of men, including Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong partner. Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that "Howl" was not obscene, adding, "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?"
Allen Ginsberg read his poem Howl for the first time, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955..
" I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked"
Allen Ginsberg read his poem Howl for the first time, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. He was joined that evening by four of his fellow beat compadres: Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen. The event was the brainchild of Wally Hedrick. Hedrick had approached Ginsberg with the idea for a reading at the gallery, but Ginsberg turned him down. He changed his “fucking mind” after completing an early draft of “Howl.”
Kenneth Rexroth introduced the speakers. Neal Cassady and a drunken Jack Kerouac were in the audience along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The following day, Ferlinghetti sent a telegraph to Ginsberg offering to publish the poem. It wasn’t long enough for a book so Ferlinghetti requested additional poems.
There were problems right from the start. Many people considered the poem to be obscene. City Lights Publishers published Howl and Other Poems on Nov. 1, 1956, with the British printer Villiers. Customs officials seized 520 copies of the book on March 25, 1957 upon its arrival in the U.S.
“Imagine being arrested for selling poetry!”
—Shigeyoshi (“Shig”) Murao, Manager of City Lights Book Shop
In June 1957 undercover agents arrested the manager of City Lights Book Shop, Shigeyoshi Murao, for selling the book. Those charges were later dropped in court. Ferlinghetti, who was out of town, turned himself in to the San Francisco Police Department’s Juvenile Bureau after an arrest warrant was issued.
People v. Ferlinghetti, went to trial on August 16th in front of Judge Clayton W. Horn. Judge Horn was a Republican who regularly taught Sunday school, but his judicial philosophy lead him to conclude that: “Unless the book is entirely lacking in ‘social importance’ it cannot be held ‘obscene.”‘ Ferlinghetti’s ACLU lawyers called professors, editors, and book reviewers to testify to the poem’s literary merit.
A.Ginsberg was a practising Buddhist who studied eastern religious disciplines extensively. He lived modestly, buying his clothing in second-hand stores and residing in downscale apartments in New York's East Village.
One of his most influential teachers was the Tibetan Buddhist, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, founder of the Naropa Institute, now Naropa University at Boulder, Colorado. At Trungpa's urging, Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman started The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics there in 1974.
Ginsberg's took part in decades of non-violent political protest against everything from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs. His poem "September on Jessore Road", calling attention to the plight of Bangladeshi refugees, exemplifies what the literary critic Helen Vendler described as Ginsberg's tireless persistence in protesting against "imperial politics, and persecution of the powerless."
His collection The Fall of America shared the annual U.S. National Book Award for Poetry in 1974. In 1979 he received the National Arts Club gold medal and was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Ginsberg was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1995 for his book Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986--1992.
"Howl" contains many references to illicit drugs and sexual practices, both heterosexual and homosexual. On the basis of one line in particular "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy"
Customs officials seized 520 copies of the poem on March 25, 1957, being imported from the printer in London.
On June 3 Shig Murao, the bookstore manager, was arrested and jailed for selling Howl and Other Poems to an undercover San Francisco police officer. City Lights Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was subsequently arrested for publishing the book. At the obscenity trial, nine literary experts testified on the poem's behalf. Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti won the case when California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of "redeeming social importance".
The case was widely publicized (articles appeared in both Time and Life magazines). An account of the trial was published by Ferlinghetti's lead defense attorney Jake Ehrlich in a book called Howl of the Censor.
The 2010 film Howl depicts the events of the trial. James Franco stars as the young Allen Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers portrays Ferlinghetti.