Monday, October 21, 2013

"Howl on Trial": "what a storm of lunatic-fringe activity I have stirred up"

"Howl" is the howl of the generation, the howl of black jackets, of James Dean, of hip beat angels, of mad saints, of cool Zen, the howl of the Withdrawn, of the crazy Sax-man, of the endless Vision whose visionary is Allen Ginsberg ... "Howl" is essentially a poem to be read aloud but only by the Howler ... any other Howler would screw it up, thus for those who are unable to hear Ginsberg read his "Howl" will have to settle for its visuality. And visuality it has, that is, if you're hip enough to visualize it. If you're a drag go read Wilbur or something.

(Gregory Corso, 1956)

Better delayed than never, a recent film starring James Franco captured the frenzy surrounding "Howl," the ecstatically mad poem by Allen Ginsberg, and the obscenity trial which followed its publication in the mid-1950s. Corso's comments, a celebration of the poem's "visuality," was central to the poem's meaning, and is what made the poem such a target for obscenity charges.

Successive generations will always need reminding about the perils of censorship, if not just access to government information but in renewed challenges to freedom of creative expression as well. Still, it is difficult now to comprehend what an impact the trial had on American culture. It's equally difficult to imagine contemporary culture without judge Clayton Horn's decision, or justice Potter Stewart's words: "In the free society to which the Constitution has committed us, it is for each to choose for himself."

Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression (City Lights, 2006, edited by Bill Morgan and Nancy Peters) is an especially timely read, collecting correspondence, reporting, magazine articles, and testimony excerpts surrounding the creation of the poem and the subsequent trial. There are some genuinely affecting early letters to friends (in one he addresses Kerouac as "Dear Almond Crackerjax"). Ginsberg was so uncertain of the trial's outcome that he spent most of the time out of the country, and as a result his letters to Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Corso, and many others are a written record of the trial behind the scenes.

The initial public success with "Howl," Ginsberg found to his amazement, was astounding. It was a foreshadowing of the unwelcome publicity to come. To his father Louis he wrote:

"The reading (at the Six Gallery) was pretty great, we had traveling photographers, who appeared on the scene from Vancouver to photograph it, a couple of amateur electronics experts who appeared with tape machines to record, request from state college for a complete recording for the night, requests for copies of the recordings, even finally organizations of bop musicians who want to write music and give big west coast traveling tours of "Howl" as a sort of Jazz Mass, recorded for a west coast company called Fantasy Records that issues a lot of national bop, etc. No kidding. You have no idea what a storm of lunatic-fringe activity I have stirred up."

(Donlin, Cassady, Ginsberg, LaVigne, and Ferlinghetti outside City Lights, 1956)

Even amid the craziness Ginsberg unwittingly "stirred up," the letters show a sense of humor and self-awareness. In the resulting wake of controversy Ginsberg often used this deprecation as a defense and a tool as he endlessly explained himself, often to uncomprehending critics. But this was a humor and a point of view no less expected among his friends. Here he is concluding his letter to Kerouac, slipping out of seriousness in an unexpected burst of humor which also wound up in the finished poem:

"What Sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed in their skulls and ate their brains and imagination?
Moloch Moloch Solitude Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!
Children screaming under stairways! Old men weeping in parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Skeleton treasuries! Ghostly banks! Eyeless capitols!
Robot apartments! Granite phalluses and monstrous bombs!
Visions! Omens! Hallucinations! Gone down the American River!
Dreams! Miracles! Ecstasies! The whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!" etc.


By de-fusing his critics he allowed the poem's readers to see the shock of truth in the words. Ginsberg spent the remainder of his life fighting battles for creative expression, and giving artists the freedom to say what they mean. It was the poet's way of affirming Justice Stewart:

"Censorship reflects a society's lack of confidence in itself. It is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime. Long ago, those who wrote our First Amendment charted a different course. They believed a society can be truly strong only when it is truly free."

(1956 City Lights photo by Allen Ginsberg)

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