October 3, 1957 – “Howl” Ruled Not Obscene

Beat Museum Poster. Image: Coloribus, Grey, San Francisco Ad Agency.

On October 3, 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn cleared “Howl“, Allen Ginsberg’s poetic paean to the Beat Generation, of obscenity charges.  Ginsberg and “Howl” publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books were out of the legal doghouse and, as far as the United States government was concerned, “Howl” was art, not pornography.  The buying public, however, may have begged to differ.

Ginsberg wrote “Howl” in 1955 and Ferlinghetti had featured it in a collected edition of Ginsberg’s work, published under the title, Howl and Other Poems.  Written in paratactic style, “Howl” chronicled Ginsberg’s life with other poets, radicals, jazz musicians, drug addicts, and psychiatric patients in thinly-veiled, almost hallucinatory language.  Paratactic form uses phrases which follow one on another without defined connection or relationship – something of stream-of-consciousness and with minimal authorial disclosure of pattern or meaning.  The content of “Howl” included Ginsberg’s rants on industrial civilization, glorification of peyote use, frank references both to heterosexuality and homosexuality, and proclamations that cultural nonconformists and drop-outs were the “best minds of my generation”.  Ginsberg cited poet William Carlos Williams and fellow Beat Generation author Jack Kerouac as his inspirations.

The poem began as a performance piece, debuting at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955.  Ferlinghetti published “Howl” shortly thereafter.  The legal machinery leading to the obscenity trial was set in motion when 520 copies of the London-printed poem were seized by customs officials on March 25, 1957.  The American Civil Liberties Union supported Ferlinghetti’s trial defense, and details of the case and Judge Horn’s ruling that “Howl” was of “redeeming social importance” were widely publicized.  Articles appeared in both Time and Life magazines, and Jake Ehrlich, Ferlinghetti’s lead attorney, published an account of the trial, titled Howl of the Censor.

Ginsberg called “Howl” his experiment with the “long line”.  Each line of the poem was a single breath unit, “one physical-mental inspiration of thought contained in the elastic of a breath”.  He also referred to the lines as “built on bop – you might think of them as a bop refrain – chorus after chorus after chorus”.  The frequently-quoted opening lines read:

“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;
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.”

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