It’s Banned Books Week: Listen to Allen Ginsberg Read His Famously Banned Poem, “Howl,” in San Francisco, 1956

Howl Cover

Accord­ing to Ruth Gra­ham in Slate, Banned Books Week is a “crock,” an unnec­es­sary pub­lic   indul­gence since “there is basi­cal­ly no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the Unit­ed States in 2015.” And though the aware­ness-rais­ing week’s spon­sor, the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, has shift­ed its focus to book cen­sor­ship in class­rooms, most of the chal­lenges posed to books in schools are sil­ly and eas­i­ly dis­missed. Yet, some oth­er cas­es, like that of Perse­po­lisMar­jane Satrapi’s graph­ic nov­el mem­oir of her Iran­ian child­hood dur­ing the revolution—are not. The book was pulled from Chica­go Pub­lic School class­rooms (but not from libraries) in 2013.

Even now, teach­ers who wish to use the book in class­es must com­plete “sup­ple­men­tal train­ing.” The osten­si­bly objec­tion­able con­tent in the book is no more graph­ic than that in most his­to­ry text­books, and it’s easy to make the case that Perse­po­lis and oth­er chal­lenged mem­oirs and nov­els that offer per­spec­tives from oth­er coun­tries, cul­tures, or polit­i­cal points of view have inher­ent edu­ca­tion­al val­ue. One might be tempt­ed to think that school offi­cials pulled the book for oth­er rea­sons. Per­haps we need Banned Books Week after all.

Anoth­er, per­haps fuzzi­er, case of a “banned” book—or poem—from this year involves a high school teacher’s fir­ing over his class­room read­ing of Allen Gins­berg’s porno­graph­ic poem “Please Mas­ter.” The case of “Please Mas­ter” should put us in mind of a once banned book writ­ten by Gins­berg: epic Beat jere­mi­ad “Howl.” When the poem’s pub­lish­er, Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, attempt­ed to import British copies of the poem in 1957, the books were seized by cus­toms, then he and his busi­ness part­ner were arrest­ed and put on tri­al for obscen­i­ty. After writ­ers and aca­d­e­mics tes­ti­fied to the poem’s cul­tur­al val­ue, the judge vin­di­cat­ed Fer­linghet­ti, and “Howl.”

But the tri­al demon­strat­ed at the time that the gov­ern­ment reserved the right to seize books, stop their pub­li­ca­tion and sale, and keep mate­r­i­al from the read­ing pub­lic if it so chose. As with this year’s dust-up over “Please Mas­ter,” the agents who con­fis­cat­ed “Howl” sup­pos­ed­ly object­ed to the sex­u­al con­tent of Gins­berg’s poem (and like­ly the homo­sex­u­al con­tent espe­cial­ly). But that rea­son­ing could also have been cov­er for oth­er objec­tions to the poem’s polit­i­cal con­tent. “Howl,” after all, was very sub­ver­sive in its day, and in a way served as a kind of man­i­festo against the sta­tus quo. It had a “cat­a­clysmic impact,” writes Fred Kaplan, “not just on the lit­er­ary world but on the broad­er soci­ety and cul­ture.”

We’ve fea­tured var­i­ous read­ings of “Howl” in the past, and if you’ve some­how missed hear­ing those, nev­er heard the poem read at all, or nev­er read the poem your­self, then con­sid­er dur­ing this Banned Books Week tak­ing the time to read it and hear it read—by the poet him­self. You can hear the first record­ed read­ing by Gins­berg, in 1956 at Port­land’s Reed Col­lege. You can hear anoth­er impas­sioned Gins­berg read­ing from 1959. And above, hear Gins­berg read the poem in 1956, in San Fran­cis­co, where it was first pub­lished and where it stood tri­al.

You can also hear Gins­berg fan James Franco—who played the poet in a film called Howlread the poem over a visu­al­ly strik­ing ani­ma­tion of its vivid imagery. And if Gins­berg isn’t your thing, con­sid­er check­ing out the ALA’s list of chal­lenged or banned books for 2014–2015. (I could cer­tain­ly rec­om­mend Perse­po­lis.) While pro­hibit­ing books from the class­room may seem a far cry from gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship, Banned Books Week reminds us that many peo­ple still find cer­tain kinds of books deeply threat­en­ing, and should push us to ask why that is.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

Allen Gins­berg Reads His Famous­ly Cen­sored Beat Poem, Howl (1959)

James Fran­co Reads a Dream­i­ly Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

Find great poems in our col­lec­tion, 800 Free eBooks for iPad, Kin­dle & Oth­er Devices

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

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Comments (6)
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  • Hanoch says:

    Regard­ing your final ques­tion, I think the answer is pret­ty sim­ple. Par­ents obvi­ous­ly want to have a say in what their chil­dren are exposed to at school. Why should they not?

  • Richard says:

    I agree that par­ents should get a say in what their chil­dren read at school. How­ev­er, what if the par­ents fol­low a nar­row reli­gious dog­ma that dis­torts their view of the world? I recall a man in Texas who want­ed “Fahren­heit 451” banned because it “takes our lord’s name in vain”, “talks about our fire­men” and contains“dirty talk”. Why should a nut­case like this get to decide what my kids read???

  • Richard says:

    Inter­est­ing! Open Cul­ture has an arti­cle about Banned Books Week and the com­ments are sub­mit­ted to cen­sor­ship (i.e., “mod­er­a­tion”). LOL

  • Hanoch says:

    Richard: I am not sug­gest­ing that a small minor­i­ty should con­trol edu­ca­tion in a pub­lic school dis­trict. On the oth­er hand, if a major­i­ty in a pub­lic school dis­trict, by virtue of their reli­gious beliefs, think that cer­tain mate­r­i­al is inap­pro­pri­ate for their chil­dren, those wish­es should be respect­ed.

  • Richard says:

    Thank you, Dan. I under­stand the need to keep the spam­mers out, just as long as you have a nice broad def­i­n­i­tion of “legit” (i.e., any­thing that is not adver­tis­ing).

  • Richard says:

    Hanoch, how would you define a “major­i­ty”? Sup­pose 51% of the par­ents are like that man in Texas and 49% are free­thinkers? Is that fair to the 49%?

    Also, what if the reli­gious par­ents want to active­ly impose their beliefs and val­ues on the 49% who are not reli­gious? Sup­pose reli­gious par­ents are opposed to class­es on fam­i­ly plan­ning, they want to vet every text book using their reli­gious dog­ma as the cri­te­ria, or maybe they object to male and female stu­dents being in the same class togeth­er. Where do you draw the line once you intro­duce reli­gious beliefs in a pub­licly-fund­ed school sys­tem? The best solu­tion is to keep reli­gion out of pub­lic schools and the par­ents can pass on their reli­gious beliefs to their kids at home and at church/temple/mosque/whatever.

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