Poem On Trial

…to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you
speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out
the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head…

The legendary first reading of Allen Ginsberg's Howl took place at San Francisco's Six Gallery on this day in 1955. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti's first edition of the poem came out two years later, the authorities took him to court. Ginsberg and his lawyers were not hopeful when they learned that the trial judge was a Sunday school teacher who had recently sentenced five shoplifters to a screening of the Ten Commandments, but the ruling was unequivocally for the poem:

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].

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

 

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