Before Banned Books Week comes to a close, we bring you Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem, Howl. The controversial poem became his best known work, and it now occupies a central place in the Beat literary canon, standing right alongside Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. Ginsberg first read the poem aloud on October 7, 1955, to a crowd of about 150 at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. (James Franco reenacted that moment in the 2010 film simply called Howl.)
Things got dicey when City Lights published the poem in 1956, and especially when they tried to import 520 printed copies from London in ’57. US customs officials seized the copies, and California prosecutors tried City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his partner, Shigeyosi Murao, on obscenity charges that same year. Nine literary experts testified to the redeeming social value of Howl, and, after a lengthy trial, the judge ruled that the poem was of “redeeming social importance.”
Above, we give you Ginsberg reading Howl in 1975. You can access the 27 minute reading in different formats above and below. It’s also listed in the Poetry section of our Free Audio Books collection. An online version of the text appears here.
Finally, here’s a bonus, the earliest known recording of Howl — February 1956 at Reed College. The poem is, needless to say, NSFW.