To save America
Fifty years ago this week, a bookshop assistant was arrested for 'peddling' obscene literature - the banned work was Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl'.
26 Mar 1966, Manhattan, New York, Allen Ginsberg, beatnik poet, wearing a stars and stripes hat, marches with a music group called the "Fugs." At Ginsberg's left is Peter Orlovsky, poet. More than 15,000 anti-Viet Nam demonstrators paraded down Fifth Ave Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS
Among the first people to whom Allen Ginsberg sent "Howl" for advice and criticism, when he completed the poem early in 1956, were his parents. Louis Ginsberg was a poet of mild manners and modest abilities, whose neat stanzas were often to be seen in the poetry corner of the New York Times. "Howl" was as far from the kind of poetry he admired as it is possible to be, but he welcomed any indication of accomplishment in his troubled 29-year-old son. "It's a wild, rhapsodic, explosive outpouring with good figures of speech," Louis wrote to Allen in February 1956. But he remained uneasy about evidence of dangerous habits. "I still insist, however, there is no need for dirty, ugly words, as they will entangle you, unnecessarily, in trouble." There had been plenty of that already. At the turn of the decade, Allen had spent eight months in the Columbia Psychiatric Institute, New York, as an alternative to serving a prison sentence for receiving stolen goods.
Ginsberg's mother, Naomi, was in a mental hospital when she received her copy. "It seems to me your wording was a little too hard," she scribbled in a letter, practically the last words she ever wrote - she died the same day. "Don't go in for ridiculous things."
Between them, Louis and Naomi Ginsberg encapsulated the tone of the response that Howl and Other Poems would attract - from "rhapsodic" to "ridiculous" - when it appeared at the end of 1956. The little pamphlet, 44 stapled pages, hardly the size of a postcard, was published by City Lights Books, Number 4 in the Pocket Poets Series overseen by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and issued from his famous bookshop on Columbus Avenue, San Francisco. The poet and doctor William Carlos Williams contributed a short preface, lending the collection an air of respectability, but no mainstream publisher would have touched it. Ginsberg's extravagant, free-form verses were aesthetically off-putting to most editors and critics in the mid-50s, but his language - his too-hard "wording" - was simply outside the law.
(Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Barbara Rubin, Bob Dylan, and Daniel Kramer backstage at McCarter Theater, in Princeton, New Jersey, September, 1964. © Daniel Kramer).
To put things briefly in perspective: at least two out of the last four Man Booker prizewinners (The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst and Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre) could not have been published in their present form before 1960. The same goes for almost the entire output of John Updike and Philip Roth. Some writers devised ways of getting round the prohibition on four-letter words - Norman Mailer came up with "fug" to colour the speech of soldiers in his 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead. Some, such as Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov, were content to have their risky books published abroad, usually in Paris, where the Olympia Press and its offshoots rejected books without a high degree of sexual content. Most just avoided the problem.
Ginsberg's book contains the poem "America", which has the line "America ... Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb". Another, "Transcription of Organ Music", practically a prose poem, offers the recollection "When I first got laid, HP graciously took my cherry ..." with the implication that both the speaker and HP were men. But it was the title poem that drew the most attention. The book was printed in England by Villiers, which shipped the first consignment to California without incident. But 520 copies of the second printing were seized by US customs, on the grounds that the writing was obscene. In a remark much repeated in ironical tones, the chief collector of customs said of "Howl": "You wouldn't want your children to come across it."
The books arriving from England were impounded in March, but in late May the collector of customs decided not to proceed with the case - Ferlinghetti had had a further 2,500 copies printed in the US, to get round the legal technicality of importing obscene material - and the outlook appeared bright for the poet and his publisher. However, within a week, in a sting operation, two officers of the Juvenile Bureau of the San Francisco Police Department entered City Lights, where the "banned" Howl and Other Poems was now the main item on display, and made to buy a copy. When the counter assistant Shig Murao accepted money for the book and a magazine, the Miscellaneous Man, he was arrested on June 3 for "peddling" literature likely to be harmful to minors. (Charges against the Miscell-aneous Man were soon dropped.) Ferlinghetti turned himself in a few days later.
The opening line of "Howl" - "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" - is among the best-known in American poetry. It has become a catchphrase. In 1997, Anglia Railways used it as an advertising jingle, to plug a special deal on trains from London to Norwich: "I saw the best minds of my generation at Liverpool Street Station ..." (the Ginsberg estate politely put a stop to it). Ginsberg wrote Part I of the poem while living at 1010 Montgomery Street, San Francisco (the house is still there; no plaque). He later recalled that he had not intended to publish it, and therefore felt free to commemorate the various assaults of madness, injury, death and persecution that had befallen the "best minds" of his intimate circle in what they experienced as the repressive atmosphere of postwar America.
( Bob Donlin (Rob Donelly in J.K.'s Desolation Angels), Neal Cassady, Robert Lavigne painter, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Allen Ginsberg in black corduroy jacket) in front of City Lights Bookshop, North Beach Broadway & Columbus Avenue San Francisco late 1955.)
Most of the poem's long lines, or "strophes", begin with "who" - "who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull" - and are traceable to actual events. In this case, "expelled from the academies" refers to Ginsberg's removal from Columbia University for writing "Fuck the Jews" on his bedroom window, in order to provoke the cleaner into washing it. Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs and Herbert Huncke all feature in the poem, in distorted form, as if under strobe lighting.
It may require an act of goodwill on the part of the reader new to "Howl" to stick with it all the way through, so strange are the language, imagery and juxtapositions, many of which are incomprehensible without the author's explanations (Ginsberg provided a set of annotations in 1986, published in the superb Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, edited by Barry Miles), but once you are committed to the poem's unusual presence it becomes easy to like, to wonder at, to read repeatedly in search of new glimpses of meaning or memory pictures from the author's "associative flash" technique.
As the book was being seized by police, and Ferlinghetti was charged with publishing and selling obscene literature, Ginsberg was in Tangier with Burroughs, helping to type the chaotic manuscripts of Naked Lunch. This work was mentioned in the dedication of "Howl" as "an endless novel which will drive everybody mad" - as if there wasn't enough madness about the place. Burroughs had been briefly incarcerated in a mental hospital in New York, and had cut off one of his own fingers. Later he was detained in a Mexican prison after shooting his wife in the head during a game of William Tell. Kerouac, another of the book's dedicatees, had been discharged from the navy when appearing to exhibit symptoms of "dementia praecox", schizophrenia. The others mentioned in the dedication were Cassady and Lucien Carr, both of whom spent periods in prison, the latter for manslaughter (he later asked Ginsberg to remove his name from the book). This history fuels the poem: images of "madness", together with its cousins "visions" and "hallucinations", feature more prominently than the deviant sex that prompted Captain Hanrahan to position the forces of his Juvenile Bureau as a shield between the book and "children".
When Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao arrived at San Francisco's municipal court on August 16 (the trial lasted until October 3), they must have groaned on discovering that the judge assigned to hear the case was Clayton W Horn, who had lately caused surprise by instructing five female shoplifters to attend a screening of the film The Ten Commandments and compose essays on its moral teachings in lieu of punishment.
The defence assembled a team of witnesses that included Mark Schorer, professor of English at the University of California, and the poets Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan. The prosecution attorney was Ralph McIntosh, a stolid philistine who turned out to be easy prey to the articulate spokesmen in favour of the book. Schorer was particularly eloquent, breaking "Howl" into component parts, explaining the nature of each and how they interacted. McIntosh quoted a line from Part II of the poem, ending "Religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit", and asked: "Couldn't that have been worded in some other way? Do they have to put words like that in there?" At this point, the judge intervened to say that it was "obvious that the author could have used another term; whether or not it would have served the same purpose is another matter". At that moment, Ferlinghetti surely sensed victory.
Horn's verdict was largely reliant on a case that had reached the US Supreme Court in the spring of the same year, in which it was established that literature was protected by the right to freedom of speech enshrined in the first amendment of the US constitution; but the case had involved photographic magazines with titles such as Aphrodite. In applying the new standard to a book of poems, Horn was setting a precedent for obscenity in literature cases to come (including Naked Lunch, which was the subject of several trials). The measure of a book was not whether it was "fit for children to read", but its effect on "the average adult in the community". The test of obscenity was that "the material must have a tendency to deprave or corrupt readers by ... arousing lustful desire to the point that it presents a clear and present danger of inciting to antisocial or immoral action". If a work had "the slightest redeeming social importance" it should be judged "not obscene". Horn summed up: "I conclude the book Howl and Other Poems does have some redeeming importance, and I find the book is not obscene. The defendant is found not guilty."
This was not the most significant of the obscenity cases clustered round the 50s and early 60s, but it was one of the earliest and, as Nancy J Peters writes in Howl on Trial, published by City Lights to mark the 50th anniversary, "over the next decade, a series of court decisions began to remove restrictions". Writing to Ferlinghetti from Amsterdam, on receiving news of the verdict, Ginsberg asked: "Is there chance of continuing the fight and freeing Miller, Lawrence, and maybe Genet? That would be really historic and worth the trouble."
"Howl" still reads well, to a reader willing to be swept along by its apocalyptic imagery and its relentless rhythmic attack. It is an "event" poem, like The Waste Land, like Hugh MacDiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, like, in our own time, Christopher Logue's War Music, entering the language under its own terms. The occasional sloppiness - Ginsberg's annotations reveal that he was willing to sacrifice meaning for show - can be taken to add to the energy of the performance. When he returned from Europe in 1958 to find himself the triumphant author of that ever-popular thing, "the book they tried to ban", as well as the assumed spokesman of the beat generation, Ginsberg gave his first recorded interview to the Village Voice. Why had he come home? "To save America. I don't know what from."( 'This's the Beat Generation' )