When we started talking about commemorating Banned Books Week here on the blog, I knew immediately that I needed to give a shout out to Allen Ginsberg, author of my favorite banned book – Howl and Other Poems.
You can hear the complete poem read by the author in this clip:
“Howl” holds a special place in my heart for a few reasons. As a young American adult it spoke powerfully to me about the alienation and isolation felt by social “outsiders” of all kinds – those of us who care about art, poetry, music, political causes…those Ginsberg called “the best minds of my generation.” And perhaps that’s a little bit cliché, but it’s a cliché that Ginsberg wrote beautifully and well.
I also appreciated Ginsberg’s willingness to frankly discuss difficult and challenging issues – homosexuality, drug use, mental illness, poverty. He brought them up not to condemn them, not to glorify them, but to simply map out the world he saw around him. These are still hot-button topics today – and in 1956, when “Howl” was published, his descriptions were considered unprintable.
But City Lights Press published it regardless of the potential backlash – even going so far as to have it printed in London to avoid US censors. And that’s what I really appreciate about this story.
Unlike many banned books, Howl and Other Poems wasn’t simply challenged in a local library or school curriculum. In 1957 Shig Murao, the owner of the City Lights San Francisco bookstore, and the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, were arrested on obscenity charges. 560 copies of the book were also seized.
In a landmark court case, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and the ACLU were able to convince San Francisco Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn that the poem did, indeed, have redeeming artistic and social merit – and should not be banned. The effects of this case were far-reaching. Ginsberg influenced the language and style of an entire generation of poets, and established a precedent protecting future writers from prosecution for their work.
“Howl” is now widely considered to be a classic, although it has remained controversial – and for many it’s still relevant today, spawning a recent biopic, a few books dealing with the court case, and a graphic novel adaptation.
What’s your favorite banned book? Let us know in the comments.