Discussion:
Ferlinghetti on HOWL hassles: Evergreen Review 1957
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RMJon23
2004-01-09 06:20:54 UTC
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"Horn on 'Howl.'"

Critic: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Source: Evergreen Review 1, no. 4 (winter 1957): 145-58.
Criticism about: "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), also known as: Irwin
Allen Ginsberg

Nationality: American

[(essay date winter 1957) In the following essay, Ferlinghetti gives an account
of the charges that were levied against him for publishing and selling obscene
writings and his subsequent San Francisco trial, after he published the first
U.S. edition of Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems.]

Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which books burn, has finally been
determined not to be the prevailing temperature at San Francisco, though the
police still would be all too happy to make it hot for you. On October 3 last,
Judge Clayton Horn of Municipal Court brought in a 39-page opinion finding
Shigeyoshi Murao and myself not guilty of publishing or selling obscene
writings, to wit Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems and issue 11 & 12 of The
Miscellaneous Man.

Thus ended one of the most irresponsible and callous police actions to be
perpetrated west of the Rockies, not counting the treatment accorded Indians
and Japanese.

When William Carlos Williams, in his Introduction to Howl, said that Ginsberg
had come up with "an arresting poem" he hardly knew what he was saying. The
first edition of Howl, Number Four in the Pocket Poets Series, was printed in
England by Villiers, passed thru Customs without incident, and was published at
the City Lights bookstore here in the fall of 1956. Part of a second printing
was stopped by Customs on March 25, 1957, not long after an earlier issue of
The Miscellaneous Man (published in Berkeley by William Margolis) had been
seized coming from the same printer. Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930 was
cited. The San Francisco Chronicle (which alone among the local press put up a
real howl about censorship) reported, in part:


Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee continued his campaign yesterday to keep
what he considers obscene literature away from the children of the Bay Area. He
confiscated 520 copies of a paperbound volume of poetry entitled Howl and Other
Poems. ... "The words and the sense of the writing is obscene," MacPhee
declared. "You wouldn't want your children to come across it."

On April 3 the American Civil Liberties Union (to which I had submitted the
manuscript of Howl before it went to the printer) informed Mr. MacPhee that it
would contest the legality of the seizure, since it did not consider the book
obscene. We announced in the meantime that an entirely new edition of Howl was
being printed within the United States, thereby removing it from Customs
jurisdiction. No changes were made in the original text, and a photo-offset
edition was placed on sale at City Lights bookstore and distributed nationally
while the Customs continued to sit on the copies from Britain.

On May 19, book editor William Hogan of the San Francisco Chronicle gave his
Sunday column to an article by myself, defending Howl (I recommended a medal be
made for Collector MacPhee, since his action was already rendering the book
famous. But the police were soon to take over this advertising account and do a
much better job--10,000 copies of Howl were in print by the time they finished
with it.) In defense of Howl I said I thought it to be "the most significant
single long poem to be published in this country since World War II, perhaps
since T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets." To which many added "Alas." Fair enough,
considering the barren, polished poetry and well-mannered verse which had
dominated many of the major poetry publications during the past decade or so,
not to mention some of the "fashionable incoherence" which has passed for
poetry in many of the smaller, avant-garde magazines and little presses. Howl
commits many poetic sins; but it was time. And it would be very interesting to
hear from critics who can name another single long poem published in this
country since the War which is as significant of its time and place and
generation. (A reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly recently wrote that Howl may
well turn out to be The Waste Land of the younger generation.) The central part
of my article said: ... It is not the poet but what he observes which is
revealed as obscene. The great obscene wastes of Howl are the sad wastes of the
mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms. ... Ginsberg
chooses to walk on the wild side of this world, along with Nelson Algren, Henry
Miller, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, not to mention some great American
dead, mostly in the tradition of philosophical anarchism. ... Ginsberg wrote
his own best defense of Howl in another poem called "America." Here he asks:


"What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their
brains and imagination?



Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children
screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the
parks!"


A world, in short, you wouldn't want your children to come across. ... Thus was
Goya obscene in depicting the Disasters of War, thus Whitman an exhibitionist,
exhibiting man in his own strange skin.

On May 29 Customs released the books it had been holding, since the United
States Attorney at San Francisco refused to institute condemnation proceedings
against Howl.

Then the police took over and arrested us, Captain William Hanrahan of the
juvenile department (well named, in this case) reporting that the books were
not fit for children to read. Thus during the first week in June I found myself
being booked and fingerprinted in San Francisco's Hall of Justice. The city
jail occupies the upper floors of it, and a charming sight it is, a picturesque
return to the early Middle Ages. And my enforced tour of it was a dandy way for
the city officially to recognize the flowering of poetry in San Francisco. As
one paper reported, "The Cops Don't Allow No Renaissance Here."

The ACLU posted bail. Our trial went on all summer, with a couple of weeks
between each day in court. The prosecution soon admitted it had no case against
either Shig Murao or myself as far as the Miscellaneous Man was concerned,
since we were not the publisher of it, in which case there was no proof we knew
what was inside the magazine when it was sold at our store. And, under the
California Penal Code, the willful and lewd intent of the accused had to be
established. Thus the trial was narrowed down to Howl.

The so-called People's Case (I say so-called, since the People seemed mostly on
our side) was presented by Deputy District Attorney Ralph McIntosh whose heart
seemed not in it nor his mind on it. He was opposed by some of the most
formidable legal talent to be found, in the persons of Mr. Jake ("Never Plead
Guilty") Ehrlich, Lawrence Speiser (former counsel for the ACLU), and Albert
Bendich (present counsel for the ACLU)--all of whom defended us without expense
to us.

The critical support for Howl (or the protest against censorship on principle)
was enormous. Here is some of what some said:

Henry Rago, editor of Poetry (Chicago)--


... I wish only to say that the book, is a thoroughly serious work of literary
art. ... There is absolutely no question in my mind or in that of any poet or
critic with whom I have discussed the book that it is a work of the legitimacy
and validity contemplated by existing American law, as we know it in the
statement of Justice Woolsey in the classic Ulysses case, and as we have seen
it reaffirmed just recently by the Supreme Court in the Butler case. ... I
would be unworthy of the tradition of this magazine or simply of my place as a
poet in the republic of letters ... if I did not speak for the right of this
book to free circulation, and against this affront not only to Allen Ginsberg
and his publishers, but to the possibilities of the art of poetry in America.
...

William Hogan of the San Francisco Chronicle:


... Howl and Other Poems, according to accepted, serious contemporary American
literary standards, is a dignified, sincere and admirable work of art. ...

Robert Duncan and Director Ruth Witt-Diamant of the San Francisco (State
College) Poetry Center:


... Howl is a significant work in American poetry, deriving both a spirit and
form from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, from Jewish religious writings. ...
It is rhapsodic, highly idealistic and inspired in cause and purpose. Like
other inspired poets, Ginsberg strives to include all of life, especially the
elements of suffering and dismay from which the voice of desire rises. Only by
misunderstanding might these tortured outcryings for sexual and spiritual
understanding be taken as salacious. The poet gives us the most painful
details; he moves us toward a statement of experience that is challenging and
finally noble.

Thomas Parkinson (University of California):


... Howl is one of the most important books of poetry published in the last ten
years. Its power and eloquence are obvious, and the talent of Mr. Ginsberg is
of the highest order. Even people who do not like the book are compelled to
testify to its force and brilliance. ...

James Laughlin (New Directions):


I have read the book carefully and do not myself consider it offensive to good
taste, likely to lead youth astray, or be injurious to public morals. I feel,
furthermore, that the book has considerable distinction as literature, being a
powerful and artistic expression of a meaningful philosophical attitude. ...

Kenneth Patchen:


The issue here--as in every like case--is not the merit or lack of it of a book
but of a Society which traditionally holds the human being to be by its very
functional nature a creature of shameful, outrageous, and obscene habits. ...

Eugene Burdick (novelist and critic):


The poem Howl strikes me as an impressionistic, broadly gauged, almost
surrealistic attempt to catch the movement, color, drama, and inevitable
disappointments of life in a complex, modern society. Howl is a pessimistic,
and indeed, almost a tragic view of life. ... It is my impression that the
total impact of the poem is far from lascivious or obscene. It is depressing,
but not licentious or extravagant in its use of harsh words. ...

Northern California Booksellers Association:


It may or may not be literature but it does have literary merit. ... The
proposition that adult literature must meet the standards of suitability for
children is manifestly absurd. ... To quote Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter
in a similar case--"... the effect of this is to reduce the adult population to
reading only what is fit for children ... surely this is to burn the house down
to roast the pig."

Barney Rosset and Donald Allen, editors of the Evergreen Review (in which Howl
was reprinted during the trial):


The second issue of Evergreen Review, which was devoted to the work of writers
in the San Francisco Bay Area, attempted in large part to show the kinds of
serious writing being done by the postwar generation. We published Allen
Ginsberg's poem Howl in that issue because we believe that it is a significant
modern poem, and that Allen Ginsberg's intention was to sincerely and honestly
present a portion of his own experience of the life of his generation. ... Our
final considered opinion was that Allen Ginsberg's Howl is an achieved poem and
that it deserves to be considered as such. ...

At the trial itself, nine expert witnesses testified in behalf of Howl. They
were eloquent witnesses, together furnishing as good a one-sided critical
survey of Howl as could possibly be got up in any literary magazine. These
witnesses were: Mark Schorer and Leo Lowenthal (of the University of California
faculty), Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Herbert Blau, Arthur Foff, and Mark
Linenthal (all of the San Francisco State College faculty), Kenneth Rexroth,
Vincent McHugh (poet and novelist), and Luther Nichols (book editor of the San
Francisco Examiner). A few excerpts from the trial transcript--

Dr. Mark Schorer:


The theme of the poem is announced very clearly in the opening line, "I saw the
best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked."
Then the following lines that make up the first part attempt to create the
impression of a kind of nightmare world in which people representing "the best
minds of my generation," in the author's view, are wandering like damned souls
in hell. That is done through a kind of series of what one might call
surrealistic images, a kind of sta e of hallucinations. Then in the second
section the mood of the poem changes and it becomes an indictment, of those
elements in modern society that, in the author's view, are destructive of the
best qualities in human nature and of the best minds. Those elements are, I
would say, predominantly materialism, conformity and mechanization leading
toward war. And then the third part is a personal address to a friend, real or
fictional, of the poet or of the person who is speaking in the poet's
voice--those are not always the same thing--who is mad and in a madhouse, and
is the specific representative of what the author regards as a general
condition, and with that final statement the poem ends. ...

Mr. McIntosh:


(later in cross-examination) I didn't quite follow your explanation to page 21,
"Footnote to Howl." Do you call that the second phase?

Mark Schorer:


I didn't speak about "Footnote to Howl." I regard that as a separate poem.

Mr. McIntosh:


Oh, I'm--

Mark Schorer:


It is not one of the three parts that make up the first poem. It's a comment
on, I take it, the attitude expressed in Howl proper, and I think what it
says--if you would like my understanding of it--is that in spite of all of the
depravity that Howl has shown, all of the despair, all of the defeat, life is
essentially holy and should be so lived. In other words, the footnote gives us
this state in contradistinction to the state that the poem proper has tried to
present.

Mr. McIntosh:


(later): Did you read the one in the back called "America"? ... What's the
essence of that piece of poetry?

Mark Schorer:


I think that what the poem says is that the "I," the speaker, feels that he has
given a piece of himself to America and has been given nothing in return, and
the poem laments certain people who have suffered at the hands of--well,
specifically, the United States Government, men like Tom Mooney, the Spanish
Loyalists, Sacco & Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys and so on.

Mr. McIntosh:


Is that in there?

Mark Schorer:


That's on page 33. In other words, that is the speaker associating himself with
those figures in American history whom he regards as having been martyred. He
feels that way about himself.

Mr. McIntosh:


Well, "America" is a little bit easier to understand than Howl, isn't it? ...
Now [referring to shorter poems in the back of the book]--you read those two?
You think they are similar, in a similar vein?

Mark Schorer:


They are very different. Those are what one would call lyric poems and the
earlier ones are hortatory poems.

Mr. McIntosh:


What?

Mark Schorer:


Poems of diatribe and indictment, the mood is very different, hortatory.

Mr. McIntosh:


That's all.

Dr. Leo Lowenthal:


In my opinion this is a genuine work of literature, which is very
characteristic for a period of unrest and tension such as the one we have been
living through the last decade. I was reminded by reading Howl of many other
literary works as they have been written after times of great upheavals,
particularly after World War One, and I found this work very much in line with
similar literary works. With regard to the specific merits of the poem Howl, I
would say that it is structured very well. As I see it, it consists of three
parts, the first of which is the craving of the poet for self-identification,
where he roams all over the field and tries to find allies in similar search
for self-identification. He then indicts, in the second part, the villain, so
to say, which does not permit him to find it, the Moloch of society, of the
world as it is today. And in the third part he indicates the potentiality of
fulfillment by friendship and love, although it ends on a sad and melancholic
note actually indicating that he is in search for fulfillment he cannot find.

Kenneth Rexroth:


... The simplest term for such writing is prophetic, it is easier to call it
that than anything else because we have a large body of prophetic writing to
refer to. There are the prophets of the Bible, which it greatly resembles in
purpose and in language and in subject matter. ... The theme is the
denunciation of evil and a pointing out of the way out, so to speak. That is
prophetic literature. "Woe! Woe! Woe! The City of Jerusalem! The Syrian is
about to come down or has already and you are to do such and such a thing and
you must repent and do thus and so." And Howl, the four parts of the poem--that
is including the "Footnote to Howl" as one additional part--do this very
specifically. They take up these various specifics seriatim, one after the
other. ... And "Footnote to Howl," of course, again, is Biblical in reference.
The reference is to the Benedicite, which says over and over again, "Blessed is
the fire, Blessed is the light, Blessed are the trees, and Blessed is this and
Blessed is that," and he is saying, "Everything that is human is Holy to me,"
and that the possibility of salvation in this terrible situation which he
reveals is through love and through the love of everything Holy in man. So
that, I would say, that this just about covers the field of typically prophetic
poetry. ...

Herbert Blau:


The thing that strikes me most forcefully about Howl is that it is worded in
what appears to be a contemporary tradition, one that did not cause me any
particular consternation in reading, a tradition most evident in the modern
period following the First World War, a tradition that resembles European
literary tradition and is defined as "Dada," a kind of art of furious negation.
By the intensity of its negation it seems to be both resurrective in quality
and ultimately a sort of paean of possible hope. I wouldn't say that the
chances for redemption or chances for salvation in a work of this kind are
deemed to be very extensively possible but, nonetheless, the vision is not a
total vision of despair. It is a vision that by the salvation of despair, by
the salvation of what would appear to be perversity, by the salvation of what
would appear to be obscene, by the salvation of what would appear to be
illicit, is ultimately a kind of redemption of the illicit, the obscene, the
disillusioned and the despairing. ...

Vincent McHugh:


In this case ... we have a vision of a modern hell. Now, we have certain
precedents for that, for example, the book that it makes me think of, or the
work of literature that it makes me think of offhand, the work of literature
which is ferociously sincere in the same way, is Mr. Pound's--some of Mr.
Pound's Cantos, especially Canto XIV and Canto XV. These, for example, in turn
derive certainly from Dante and from the famous so-called cantos in Dante, and
Dante, in turn, derives from the Odyssey, and so on into all the mythologies of
the world. ...

The prosecution put only two "expert witnesses" on the stand--both very lame
samples of academia--one from the Catholic University of San Francisco and one
a private elocution teacher, a beautiful woman, who said, "You feel like you
are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn't linger
on it too long, I assure you." The University of San Francisco instructor said:
"The literary value of this poem is negligible. ... This poem is apparently
dedicated to a long-dead movement, Dadaism, and some late followers of Dadaism.
And, therefore, the opportunity is long past for any significant literary
contribution of this poem." The critically devastating things the prosecution's
witnesses could have said, but didn't, remain one of the great Catholic
silences of the day.

So much for the literary criticism inspired by the trial. Cross-examination by
the Prosecutor was generally brilliant, as in the following bit:

Mr. McIntosh:


Does Mr. Ferlinghetti attend your poetry writing workshop?

Dr. Mark Linenthal:


He does not.

Mr. McIntosh:


Do you attend his?

Dr. Linenthal:


I do not.

Mr. McIntosh:


You haven't been over there hearing him read poetry?

Dr. Linenthal:


No, I haven't.

(etc.)


Legally, a layman could see that an important principle was certainly in the
line drawn between "hard core pornography" and writing judged to be "social
speech." But more important still was the court's acceptance of the principle
that if a work is determined to be "social speech" the question of obscenity
may not even be raised. Or, in the words of Counsel Bendich's argument:


"The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States protecting the
fundamental freedoms of speech and press prohibits the suppression of
literature by the application of obscenity formulae unless the trial court
first determines that the literature in question is utterly without social
importance."


(Roth v. U.S.)


... What is being urged here is that the majority opinion in Roth requires a
trial court to make the constitutional determination; to decide in the first
instance whether a work is utterly without redeeming social importance, before
it permits the test of obscenity to be applied. ...

... The record is clear that all of the experts for the defense identified the
main theme of Howl as social criticism. And the prosecution concedes that it
does not understand the work, much less what its dominant theme is.


Judge Horn agreed, in his opinion: "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. The third part presents a picture of an
individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a
general condition. ... 'Footnote to Howl' seems to be a declamation that
everything in the world is holy, including parts of the body by name. It ends
in a plea for holy living. ..."

And the judge went on to set forth certain rules for the guidance of
authorities in the future:



1. If the material has the slightest redeeming social importance it is not
obscene because it is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the
United States Constitution, and the California Constitution.

2. If it does not have the slightest redeeming social importance it may be
obscene.

3. The test of obscenity in California is that the material must have a
tendency to deprave or corrupt readers by exciting lascivious thoughts or
arousing lustful desire to the point that it presents a clear and present
danger of inciting to anti-social or immoral action.

4. The book or material must be judged as a whole by its effect on the average
adult in the community.

5. If the material is objectionable only because of coarse and vulgar language
which is not erotic or aphrodisiac in character it is not obscene.

6. Scienter must be proved.

7. Book reviews may be received in evidence if properly authenticated.

8. Evidence of expert witnesses in the literary field is proper.

9. Comparison of the material with other similar material previously
adjudicated is proper.

10. The people owe a duty to themselves and to each other to preserve and
protect their constitutional freedoms from any encroachment by government
unless it appears that the allowable limits of such protection have been
breached, and then to take only such action as will heal the breach.

11. Quoting Justice Douglas: 'I have the same confidence in the ability of our
people to reject noxious literature as I have in their capacity to sort out the
true from the false in theology, economics, politics, or any other field.'

12. 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).


At which the Prosecution was reliably reported to have blushed.

Under banner headlines, the Chronicle reported that "the Judge's decision was
hailed with applause and cheers from a packed audience that offered the most
fantastic collection of beards, turtle-necked shirts and Italian hair-dos ever
to grace the grimy precincts of the Hall of Justice." The decision was hailed
editorially as a "landmark of law." Judge Horn has since been re-elected to
office, which I like to think means that the People agree it was the police who
here committed an obscene action.

Source: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Horn on 'Howl.'" Evergreen Review 1, no. 4
(winter 1957): 145-58.
Will Dockery
2004-01-10 16:35:00 UTC
Permalink
Post by RMJon23
"Horn on 'Howl.'"
Critic: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Source: Evergreen Review 1, no. 4 (winter 1957): 145-58.
Criticism about: "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), also known as: Irwin
Allen Ginsberg
Nationality: American
[(essay date winter 1957) In the following essay, Ferlinghetti gives an account
of the charges that were levied against him for publishing and selling obscene
writings and his subsequent San Francisco trial, after he published the first
U.S. edition of Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems.]
Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which books burn, has finally been
determined not to be the prevailing temperature at San Francisco, though the
police still would be all too happy to make it hot for you. On October 3 last,
Judge Clayton Horn of Municipal Court brought in a 39-page opinion finding
Shigeyoshi Murao and myself not guilty of publishing or selling obscene
writings, to wit Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems and issue 11 & 12 of The
Miscellaneous Man.
Thus ended one of the most irresponsible and callous police actions to be
perpetrated west of the Rockies, not counting the treatment accorded Indians
and Japanese.
When William Carlos Williams, in his Introduction to Howl, said that Ginsberg
had come up with "an arresting poem" he hardly knew what he was saying. The
first edition of Howl, Number Four in the Pocket Poets Series, was printed in
England by Villiers, passed thru Customs without incident, and was published at
the City Lights bookstore here in the fall of 1956. Part of a second printing
was stopped by Customs on March 25, 1957, not long after an earlier issue of
The Miscellaneous Man (published in Berkeley by William Margolis) had been
seized coming from the same printer. Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930 was
cited. The San Francisco Chronicle (which alone among the local press put up a
Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee continued his campaign yesterday to keep
what he considers obscene literature away from the children of the Bay Area. He
confiscated 520 copies of a paperbound volume of poetry entitled Howl and Other
Poems. ... "The words and the sense of the writing is obscene," MacPhee
declared. "You wouldn't want your children to come across it."
On April 3 the American Civil Liberties Union (to which I had submitted the
manuscript of Howl before it went to the printer) informed Mr. MacPhee that it
would contest the legality of the seizure, since it did not consider the book
obscene. We announced in the meantime that an entirely new edition of Howl was
being printed within the United States, thereby removing it from Customs
jurisdiction. No changes were made in the original text, and a photo-offset
edition was placed on sale at City Lights bookstore and distributed nationally
while the Customs continued to sit on the copies from Britain.
On May 19, book editor William Hogan of the San Francisco Chronicle gave his
Sunday column to an article by myself, defending Howl (I recommended a medal be
made for Collector MacPhee, since his action was already rendering the book
famous. But the police were soon to take over this advertising account and do a
much better job--10,000 copies of Howl were in print by the time they finished
with it.) In defense of Howl I said I thought it to be "the most significant
single long poem to be published in this country since World War II, perhaps
since T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets." To which many added "Alas." Fair enough,
considering the barren, polished poetry and well-mannered verse which had
dominated many of the major poetry publications during the past decade or so,
not to mention some of the "fashionable incoherence" which has passed for
poetry in many of the smaller, avant-garde magazines and little presses. Howl
commits many poetic sins; but it was time. And it would be very interesting to
hear from critics who can name another single long poem published in this
country since the War which is as significant of its time and place and
generation. (A reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly recently wrote that Howl may
well turn out to be The Waste Land of the younger generation.) The central part
of my article said: ... It is not the poet but what he observes which is
revealed as obscene. The great obscene wastes of Howl are the sad wastes of the
mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms. ... Ginsberg
chooses to walk on the wild side of this world, along with Nelson Algren, Henry
Miller, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, not to mention some great American
"What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their
brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children
screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the
parks!"
A world, in short, you wouldn't want your children to come across. ... Thus was
Goya obscene in depicting the Disasters of War, thus Whitman an exhibitionist,
exhibiting man in his own strange skin.
On May 29 Customs released the books it had been holding, since the United
States Attorney at San Francisco refused to institute condemnation proceedings
against Howl.
Then the police took over and arrested us, Captain William Hanrahan of the
juvenile department (well named, in this case) reporting that the books were
not fit for children to read. Thus during the first week in June I found myself
being booked and fingerprinted in San Francisco's Hall of Justice. The city
jail occupies the upper floors of it, and a charming sight it is, a picturesque
return to the early Middle Ages. And my enforced tour of it was a dandy way for
the city officially to recognize the flowering of poetry in San Francisco. As
one paper reported, "The Cops Don't Allow No Renaissance Here."
The ACLU posted bail. Our trial went on all summer, with a couple of weeks
between each day in court. The prosecution soon admitted it had no case against
either Shig Murao or myself as far as the Miscellaneous Man was concerned,
since we were not the publisher of it, in which case there was no proof we knew
what was inside the magazine when it was sold at our store. And, under the
California Penal Code, the willful and lewd intent of the accused had to be
established. Thus the trial was narrowed down to Howl.
The so-called People's Case (I say so-called, since the People seemed mostly on
our side) was presented by Deputy District Attorney Ralph McIntosh whose heart
seemed not in it nor his mind on it. He was opposed by some of the most
formidable legal talent to be found, in the persons of Mr. Jake ("Never Plead
Guilty") Ehrlich, Lawrence Speiser (former counsel for the ACLU), and Albert
Bendich (present counsel for the ACLU)--all of whom defended us without expense
to us.
The critical support for Howl (or the protest against censorship on principle)
Henry Rago, editor of Poetry (Chicago)--
... I wish only to say that the book, is a thoroughly serious work of literary
art. ... There is absolutely no question in my mind or in that of any poet or
critic with whom I have discussed the book that it is a work of the legitimacy
and validity contemplated by existing American law, as we know it in the
statement of Justice Woolsey in the classic Ulysses case, and as we have seen
it reaffirmed just recently by the Supreme Court in the Butler case. ... I
would be unworthy of the tradition of this magazine or simply of my place as a
poet in the republic of letters ... if I did not speak for the right of this
book to free circulation, and against this affront not only to Allen Ginsberg
and his publishers, but to the possibilities of the art of poetry in America.
...
... Howl and Other Poems, according to accepted, serious contemporary American
literary standards, is a dignified, sincere and admirable work of art. ...
Robert Duncan and Director Ruth Witt-Diamant of the San Francisco (State
... Howl is a significant work in American poetry, deriving both a spirit and
form from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, from Jewish religious writings. ...
It is rhapsodic, highly idealistic and inspired in cause and purpose. Like
other inspired poets, Ginsberg strives to include all of life, especially the
elements of suffering and dismay from which the voice of desire rises. Only by
misunderstanding might these tortured outcryings for sexual and spiritual
understanding be taken as salacious. The poet gives us the most painful
details; he moves us toward a statement of experience that is challenging and
finally noble.
... Howl is one of the most important books of poetry published in the last ten
years. Its power and eloquence are obvious, and the talent of Mr. Ginsberg is
of the highest order. Even people who do not like the book are compelled to
testify to its force and brilliance. ...
I have read the book carefully and do not myself consider it offensive to good
taste, likely to lead youth astray, or be injurious to public morals. I feel,
furthermore, that the book has considerable distinction as literature, being a
powerful and artistic expression of a meaningful philosophical attitude. ...
The issue here--as in every like case--is not the merit or lack of it of a book
but of a Society which traditionally holds the human being to be by its very
functional nature a creature of shameful, outrageous, and obscene habits. ...
The poem Howl strikes me as an impressionistic, broadly gauged, almost
surrealistic attempt to catch the movement, color, drama, and inevitable
disappointments of life in a complex, modern society. Howl is a pessimistic,
and indeed, almost a tragic view of life. ... It is my impression that the
total impact of the poem is far from lascivious or obscene. It is depressing,
but not licentious or extravagant in its use of harsh words. ...
It may or may not be literature but it does have literary merit. ... The
proposition that adult literature must meet the standards of suitability for
children is manifestly absurd. ... To quote Supreme Court Justice Frankfurter
in a similar case--"... the effect of this is to reduce the adult population to
reading only what is fit for children ... surely this is to burn the house down
to roast the pig."
Barney Rosset and Donald Allen, editors of the Evergreen Review (in which Howl
The second issue of Evergreen Review, which was devoted to the work of writers
in the San Francisco Bay Area, attempted in large part to show the kinds of
serious writing being done by the postwar generation. We published Allen
Ginsberg's poem Howl in that issue because we believe that it is a significant
modern poem, and that Allen Ginsberg's intention was to sincerely and honestly
present a portion of his own experience of the life of his generation. ... Our
final considered opinion was that Allen Ginsberg's Howl is an achieved poem and
that it deserves to be considered as such. ...
At the trial itself, nine expert witnesses testified in behalf of Howl. They
were eloquent witnesses, together furnishing as good a one-sided critical
survey of Howl as could possibly be got up in any literary magazine. These
witnesses were: Mark Schorer and Leo Lowenthal (of the University of California
faculty), Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Herbert Blau, Arthur Foff, and Mark
Linenthal (all of the San Francisco State College faculty), Kenneth Rexroth,
Vincent McHugh (poet and novelist), and Luther Nichols (book editor of the San
Francisco Examiner). A few excerpts from the trial transcript--
The theme of the poem is announced very clearly in the opening line, "I saw the
best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked."
Then the following lines that make up the first part attempt to create the
impression of a kind of nightmare world in which people representing "the best
minds of my generation," in the author's view, are wandering like damned souls
in hell. That is done through a kind of series of what one might call
surrealistic images, a kind of state of hallucinations. Then in the second
section the mood of the poem changes and it becomes an indictment, of those
elements in modern society that, in the author's view, are destructive of the
best qualities in human nature and of the best minds. Those elements are, I
would say, predominantly materialism, conformity and mechanization leading
toward war. And then the third part is a personal address to a friend, real or
fictional, of the poet or of the person who is speaking in the poet's
voice--those are not always the same thing--who is mad and in a madhouse, and
is the specific representative of what the author regards as a general
condition, and with that final statement the poem ends. ...
(later in cross-examination) I didn't quite follow your explanation to page 21,
"Footnote to Howl." Do you call that the second phase?
I didn't speak about "Footnote to Howl." I regard that as a separate poem.
Oh, I'm--
It is not one of the three parts that make up the first poem. It's a comment
on, I take it, the attitude expressed in Howl proper, and I think what it
says--if you would like my understanding of it--is that in spite of all of the
depravity that Howl has shown, all of the despair, all of the defeat, life is
essentially holy and should be so lived. In other words, the footnote gives us
this state in contradistinction to the state that the poem proper has tried to
present.
(later): Did you read the one in the back called "America"? ... What's the
essence of that piece of poetry?
I think that what the poem says is that the "I," the speaker, feels that he has
given a piece of himself to America and has been given nothing in return, and
the poem laments certain people who have suffered at the hands of--well,
specifically, the United States Government, men like Tom Mooney, the Spanish
Loyalists, Sacco & Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys and so on.
Is that in there?
That's on page 33. In other words, that is the speaker associating himself with
those figures in American history whom he regards as having been martyred. He
feels that way about himself.
Well, "America" is a little bit easier to understand than Howl, isn't it? ...
Now [referring to shorter poems in the back of the book]--you read those two?
You think they are similar, in a similar vein?
They are very different. Those are what one would call lyric poems and the
earlier ones are hortatory poems.
What?
Poems of diatribe and indictment, the mood is very different, hortatory.
That's all.
In my opinion this is a genuine work of literature, which is very
characteristic for a period of unrest and tension such as the one we have been
living through the last decade. I was reminded by reading Howl of many other
literary works as they have been written after times of great upheavals,
particularly after World War One, and I found this work very much in line with
similar literary works. With regard to the specific merits of the poem Howl, I
would say that it is structured very well. As I see it, it consists of three
parts, the first of which is the craving of the poet for self-identification,
where he roams all over the field and tries to find allies in similar search
for self-identification. He then indicts, in the second part, the villain, so
to say, which does not permit him to find it, the Moloch of society, of the
world as it is today. And in the third part he indicates the potentiality of
fulfillment by friendship and love, although it ends on a sad and melancholic
note actually indicating that he is in search for fulfillment he cannot find.
... The simplest term for such writing is prophetic, it is easier to call it
that than anything else because we have a large body of prophetic writing to
refer to. There are the prophets of the Bible, which it greatly resembles in
purpose and in language and in subject matter. ... The theme is the
denunciation of evil and a pointing out of the way out, so to speak. That is
prophetic literature. "Woe! Woe! Woe! The City of Jerusalem! The Syrian is
about to come down or has already and you are to do such and such a thing and
you must repent and do thus and so." And Howl, the four parts of the poem--that
is including the "Footnote to Howl" as one additional part--do this very
specifically. They take up these various specifics seriatim, one after the
other. ... And "Footnote to Howl," of course, again, is Biblical in reference.
The reference is to the Benedicite, which says over and over again, "Blessed is
the fire, Blessed is the light, Blessed are the trees, and Blessed is this and
Blessed is that," and he is saying, "Everything that is human is Holy to me,"
and that the possibility of salvation in this terrible situation which he
reveals is through love and through the love of everything Holy in man. So
that, I would say, that this just about covers the field of typically prophetic
poetry. ...
The thing that strikes me most forcefully about Howl is that it is worded in
what appears to be a contemporary tradition, one that did not cause me any
particular consternation in reading, a tradition most evident in the modern
period following the First World War, a tradition that resembles European
literary tradition and is defined as "Dada," a kind of art of furious negation.
By the intensity of its negation it seems to be both resurrective in quality
and ultimately a sort of paean of possible hope. I wouldn't say that the
chances for redemption or chances for salvation in a work of this kind are
deemed to be very extensively possible but, nonetheless, the vision is not a
total vision of despair. It is a vision that by the salvation of despair, by
the salvation of what would appear to be perversity, by the salvation of what
would appear to be obscene, by the salvation of what would appear to be
illicit, is ultimately a kind of redemption of the illicit, the obscene, the
disillusioned and the despairing. ...
In this case ... we have a vision of a modern hell. Now, we have certain
precedents for that, for example, the book that it makes me think of, or the
work of literature that it makes me think of offhand, the work of literature
which is ferociously sincere in the same way, is Mr. Pound's--some of Mr.
Pound's Cantos, especially Canto XIV and Canto XV. These, for example, in turn
derive certainly from Dante and from the famous so-called cantos in Dante, and
Dante, in turn, derives from the Odyssey, and so on into all the mythologies of
the world. ...
The prosecution put only two "expert witnesses" on the stand--both very lame
samples of academia--one from the Catholic University of San Francisco and one
a private elocution teacher, a beautiful woman, who said, "You feel like you
are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn't linger
"The literary value of this poem is negligible. ... This poem is apparently
dedicated to a long-dead movement, Dadaism, and some late followers of Dadaism.
And, therefore, the opportunity is long past for any significant literary
contribution of this poem." The critically devastating things the prosecution's
witnesses could have said, but didn't, remain one of the great Catholic
silences of the day.
So much for the literary criticism inspired by the trial. Cross-examination by
Does Mr. Ferlinghetti attend your poetry writing workshop?
He does not.
Do you attend his?
I do not.
You haven't been over there hearing him read poetry?
No, I haven't.
(etc.)
Legally, a layman could see that an important principle was certainly in the
line drawn between "hard core pornography" and writing judged to be "social
speech." But more important still was the court's acceptance of the principle
that if a work is determined to be "social speech" the question of obscenity
"The first amendment to the Constitution of the United States protecting the
fundamental freedoms of speech and press prohibits the suppression of
literature by the application of obscenity formulae unless the trial court
first determines that the literature in question is utterly without social
importance."
(Roth v. U.S.)
... What is being urged here is that the majority opinion in Roth requires a
trial court to make the constitutional determination; to decide in the first
instance whether a work is utterly without redeeming social importance, before
it permits the test of obscenity to be applied. ...
... The record is clear that all of the experts for the defense identified the
main theme of Howl as social criticism. And the prosecution concedes that it
does not understand the work, much less what its dominant theme is.
Judge Horn agreed, in his opinion: "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. The third part presents a picture of an
individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a
general condition. ... 'Footnote to Howl' seems to be a declamation that
everything in the world is holy, including parts of the body by name. It ends
in a plea for holy living. ..."
And the judge went on to set forth certain rules for the guidance of
1. If the material has the slightest redeeming social importance it is not
obscene because it is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the
United States Constitution, and the California Constitution.
2. If it does not have the slightest redeeming social importance it may be
obscene.
3. The test of obscenity in California is that the material must have a
tendency to deprave or corrupt readers by exciting lascivious thoughts or
arousing lustful desire to the point that it presents a clear and present
danger of inciting to anti-social or immoral action.
4. The book or material must be judged as a whole by its effect on the average
adult in the community.
5. If the material is objectionable only because of coarse and vulgar language
which is not erotic or aphrodisiac in character it is not obscene.
6. Scienter must be proved.
7. Book reviews may be received in evidence if properly authenticated.
8. Evidence of expert witnesses in the literary field is proper.
9. Comparison of the material with other similar material previously
adjudicated is proper.
10. The people owe a duty to themselves and to each other to preserve and
protect their constitutional freedoms from any encroachment by government
unless it appears that the allowable limits of such protection have been
breached, and then to take only such action as will heal the breach.
11. Quoting Justice Douglas: 'I have the same confidence in the ability of our
people to reject noxious literature as I have in their capacity to sort out the
true from the false in theology, economics, politics, or any other field.'
12. 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).
At which the Prosecution was reliably reported to have blushed.
Under banner headlines, the Chronicle reported that "the Judge's decision was
hailed with applause and cheers from a packed audience that offered the most
fantastic collection of beards, turtle-necked shirts and Italian hair-dos ever
to grace the grimy precincts of the Hall of Justice." The decision was hailed
editorially as a "landmark of law." Judge Horn has since been re-elected to
office, which I like to think means that the People agree it was the police who
here committed an obscene action.
Source: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Horn on 'Howl.'" Evergreen Review 1, no. 4
(winter 1957): 145-58.
This is what poetry is all about. The real deal---. The Beat.
Will
Usenet Poet OY
2004-01-10 18:42:04 UTC
Permalink
Ginzberg was a lamer and so are you.
Will Dockery
2004-01-10 20:31:02 UTC
Permalink
Post by Usenet Poet OY
Ginzberg was a lamer and so are you.
Spoken by a true gimp. The spelling's "Ginsberg" by the way.
Will

Will Dockery poetry, art and music:
http://www.lulu.com/dockery

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