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 (8)
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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.

  • Sisyphus says:

    Yeah I take this class at SWHS and I 100% agree with you. Its moron­ic that 17–18 yr. olds tak­ing an AP class could­nt tol­er­ate a poem about sex­u­al­i­ty. The point of school is to chal­lenge your view of real­i­ty, not keep you in some lit­tle bub­ble as if you are a snowflake who can’t han­dle a frick­ing poem.

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