Subversive Historian – 10/07/08

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

Fifty-three years ago on this day in people’s history, Allen Ginsberg recited his classic poem “Howl,” publicly for the first time. On October 7th, 1955, the beat poet seized an audience at Six Gallery in San Francisco with the he famous opening lines of “Howl” reading, “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.” Ginsberg’s poem was published the following year in a collection put out by Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books. In print form, “Howl’s” references to homosexuality and drugs motivated the San Francisco Police and U.S. customs to bring a lawsuit against Ferlinghetti on the grounds that the poem was “obscene.” In a test case for the first amendment of free speech, the City Lights bookstore store owner with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union prevailed as the presiding judge ruled the work of “redeeming social importance.”

On the fiftieth anniversary of the court victory, Ferlinghetti and others petitioned Pacifica Radio in New York to air the “Howl,” but fearing FCC fines, WBAI ultimately declined. You can read the poem, you just can’t hear it on the radio. Yeah, I don’t get it either…

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