High School Teacher Reads Allen Ginsberg’s Explicit Poem “Please Master” and Loses His Job

Image by Michiel hendryckx.

Image by Michiel Hendryckx.

Although the boundaries of what should pass for free speech in high school English classrooms will be forever in debate, most everyone would agree some boundaries must exist. But what of the speech of famous authors? Of towering figures of 20th century poetry? Should their speech be subject to review? What of an English teacher who allows the most risqué Beat poem you’ve ever heard to be read aloud in class by the poet himself, Allen Ginsberg, via an online video (perhaps this one)? Award-winning English teacher David Olio, a beloved 19-year veteran, did just that when a student asked to share Ginsberg’s ecstatic, and very explicit, poem “Please Master” with the class.

After complaints from several students, the school administration suspended Olio, then forced him to resign. Whether or not this decision was just is a debate that extends beyond the scope of this post. The variables are many, as Slate’s sympathetic Mark Joseph Stern admits, including the fact that Olio did not exactly prepare his students for what was to come, nor give them the opportunity to opt out. The high school seniors—on the threshold of adulthood and some already with one foot in college—may not have had their “emotional health” endangered, as Olio’s termination letter alleged, but it’s little wonder some of them found the material shocking.

Ginsberg’s poem, which you can hear him read above, describes a “fantasized sexual encounter between Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, the inspiration for the Dean Moriarty character in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.” It is graphic, writes Stern, but “not obscene.” Instead—in its allusions to St. Teresa’s angelic visitation in a “profane description of anal sex as a nearly divine act”—Ginsberg’s poem is “dangerous because it juxtaposes tenderness with masochism; dangerous because it rapturously celebrates a vision of same-sex intimacy we are only supposed to whisper about.” Read the poem, listen to Ginsberg read it, and judge for yourself.

Of course, this is hardly the first time Ginsberg’s work has caused controversy. His Beat epic “Howl” (1955), with its sexually charged lines, irked the U.S. government, who seized copies of the poem and put its publisher, poet and City Lights’ bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on trial for obscenity. Well over sixty years later, Ferlinghetti has written in defense of David Olio. We can safely assume that Ginsberg, who died in 1997, also would approve. And while we have every right to be shocked by Ginsberg’s poem, or not, and find the decision to fire Olio warranted, or not, I tend to agree with Stern when he writes “if every English teacher were that enthusiastic about his subject, America would be a much more literate, educated and interesting place.”

Related Content:

The First Recording of Allen Ginsberg Reading “Howl” (1956)

Allen Ginsberg Reads a Poem He Wrote on LSD to William F. Buckley

Allen Ginsberg Talks About Coming Out to His Family & Fellow Poets on 1978 Radio Show (NSFW)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (7)
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  • Hanoch says:

    Extremely poor judgment on the part of this teacher. Even if one were to assume that this garbage passes for art, would it not be the decent thing to allow parents the opportunity to decide if they want their children exposed to this? Unfortunately, it seems to be the left’s modus operandi to forcibly impose their vision on everyone else.

  • Mike Taylor says:

    I’m surprised that OpenCulture would make such an elementary mistake as to confuse freedom of speech with the issue of platform. It’s absolutely right that Ginsberg should have had the right to write that poem; and also absolutely a school’s right and responsibility to ensure that it is not made a platform for it. There is no more conflict in this that in saying that neo-nazis need not be given a platform on prime-time TV.

  • Ben There says:

    Ginsbergs trash poetry was crap when I was a “beat”, it was crap when I was a “hippy”, it was crap when I was a “wasp”, it was crap when I was a “dink”.. Sixty years on now I’m just here for the entertainment, but crappy poetry from ( racial slur) Ginsberg is still crap. Any English school teacher really should have known coffeehouse crap isn’t suitable in school.

  • sparticus says:

    The fact that each evening is inundated with the most atrocious and over the top expressions of violence and exploitation which is non consensual and effects not even a pause – in fact is considerd good clean entertainment for the whole family – is the real grotesque perversion. In fact we send these children innocent as they are to foreign lands to kill children like them selves for war hawks and plutocrats and are rewarded for this moral endever with having thier legs and balls blown off. Though i am not particularly impresed with Ginsburgs poem, it should be the least of our worries. Fiering an english teacher is not going to rectify the subversion of the moral imparitive which is the contemporary reality. We would do far better taking a hard look at our selves and the involability of our moral absolutes.

  • Pastafarian says:

    Years late, but this is beyond stupid. They were high school seniors, meaning they were 17-18 years old, in an AP college-level class. Both due to their age and the advanced level of the course, they were mature enough to handle the material. By age 17 everyone has been exposed to all of this stuff before. This should be allowed if there’s a specific literary purpose and it’s relevant to the course content. I don’t believe in censorship in the classroom. You’d have an argument if this was an introductory freshman HS class, not a college-level AP class for seniors.

    Much ado about sexuality in our society even today.

  • Pastafarian says:

    Considering they were 17 and 18 years old, I don’t really see the need for their parents to attempt to shield them from sexuality.

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