On this date, March 25, in 1957, Allen Ginsberg helped make literary history. That’s because 520 copies of his poem “Howl” were seized by U.S. Customs agents on charges of obscenity. Ginsberg and his publisher, City Lights, would fight those charges -- and win.
“The judge ruled that you couldn’t judge a work obscene if it had the ‘slightest redeeming social significance,’” City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti told PBS’ “NewHour” in 2002. “That was the key phrase, which held up. This was a precedent that really opened the floodgates and allowed the Grove Press in New York, for instance, to publish D.H. Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and Henry Miller’s ‘Tropics’ and Jean Genet’s works from France and many others.”
Incidentally, City Lights’ Ferlinghetti turned 94 Sunday; birthday greetings to him! And thanks.
Because speech in America got a little freer. American culture got a little looser. And that end was never guaranteed -- although the defense made a convincing case, the judge was a Sunday school teacher who had recently made headlines after sentencing five shoplifters to watch the epic biblical film “The Ten Commandments."
Some of the first seeds of the cultural shifts of the 1960s were sown -- all because 520 copies of “Howl” that had been printed in England were seized on their way into the US. Happy 56th anniversary of that seizure! Our culture wouldn’t be the same without it.
Here’s the opening of “Howl”; the complete poem is online at the Poetry Foundation.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares...