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L'opinion publique dans le monde anglo-américain

Jean-Paul Regis

Poetry, counter-culture and public opinion: the "Howl" case

Pierre Lagayette

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1On the afternoon of May 21st, 1957, two officers from the San Francisco City Police, Russell Woods and Thomas Pagee, walked into the City Lights Bookshop, at 261 Columbus Avenue, bought a 57-page book of poems entitled Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg, for 75 cents, then showed the co-owner of the store, Shigeyoshi Murao, a warrant for his arrest and that of his partner - and founder of "City Lights" - Lawrence Ferlinghetti. What these two officers, acting on a commission from Captain William Hanrahan, then head of the juvenile department, did not know was that they were boosting the Beat Movement and its cultural load off the launching pad for a round-the-world voyage that would take nearly a decade. Ferlinghetti and Murao were brought physically before a municipal court, but the real object of the subsequent trial was the book of poetry itself, its contents, and the possible influence of literary works on the life and opinions of American citizens. Before going into the particulars of the case, let me recall the events that led to the indictment of the then obscure Ferlinghetti.

2The scandalmonger in the Bay Area was named Allen Ginsberg. The young poet from Paterson, New Jersey, after a four-month tour of Mexico and Central America, arrived at Neal Cassady's new home in San Jose in April 1954. He soon moved into the city, lived for a while at the Hotel Marconi in North Beach, took a job as market researcher in the business district. All summer he roamed around the city and East Bay, getting in touch - often through Cassady - with local artists. He was not long meeting Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and other young poets who made the literary scene in San Francisco and Berkeley. Following several changes of residence, mostly in "Polk Gulch" (a favorite haunt for writers between the 1880's and the 1920's), and an affair with model Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg rented rooms at 1010 Montgomery Street, right in the center of the North Beach area, and moved in on February 3, 1955. There, a few months later, he wrote a daring, exalted poem that shot like a bolt through the armor of the 1950's: Howl. It was hurriedly typed and finished in less than two weeks - a long, prophetic expostulation, to be recited rather than read, hortatory more than confessional poetry. It might have gone unnoticed, though, like other works by local artists: distance from New York publishers and critics, for most of them, precluded national circulation and attention. Poets like Philip Lamantia, Phil Whalen, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, Kenneth Patchen, were at the time close to nonentities on the national market. Two not wholly unrelated events, however, were to carve a special mark for Howl on the rock of eternity: the Six Gallery reading, and the obscenity trial.

3The public reading of Howl was one of those avant-garde happenings to which San Franciscans had been accustomed for some time. The bohemian tradition in the city went back to the early days of the century, when artists, nettled by the opulence and vanity of the local "bourgeois" - mostly upstarts of the Gilded Age - followed Ambrose Bierce and George Sterling in maliciously upsetting conventional morals. Those who took offense at the so-called "orgies of poets" which took place in the area around 1956-57, might have usefully recalled the prankstering of early-day Bohemians - like Bierce's week-long drinking bouts or Sterling's midnight shippings for a swim in Golden Gate Park's Chain of Lakes.

4Post-war San Francisco harbored an active colony of eccentrics, rebels and refugees - for the most part writers, sculptors, painters - who found there the kind of freedom they had been denied elsewhere. The Red Thirties had bred a generation of anarchists and pacifists whose zeal did not abate with the war. When the latter ended, artists from the C.D. camp at Waldport, Oregon, and members from the recently created San Francisco Anarchist Circle revived all sorts of cultural activities - a radio station, little theaters, magazines, etc. Avant-garde poetry also found unexpected support in academe, thanks to the remarkable Poetry Center of San Francisco State College, directed by a no less remarkable woman, Ruth Witt-Diamant, which gave readings to fairly large audiences at least twice a month. Literary activities even extended to galleries and private homes, around the Bay, where poetry was read too.

5The Six Gallery was one of such places, located at 3119 Fillmore, in the Haight-Ashbury district. In the early 1950's this former auto-repair garage had been converted by painter Wally Hedrick into a show-room for his artists' cooperative. It served mostly to exhibit abstract expressionists, but was occasionally used as a meeting place for Bay Area "radicals". The first poetry reading that brought the Six Gallery to local attention was one by Walter Lowenfels, an ageing modernist poet who had fled New York on allegations of communist activities, and who, to everyone's surprise, packed a full house of eager young listeners. This was in early 1955; Rexroth, who had arranged for the Lowenfels reading, was asked to organize another of these successful sessions.

  • 1 Ann Charters declares that Ginsberg was prompted to materialize this idea after meeting with Gary (...)
  • 2 Memory serving donkeys better than poets, neither Rexroth nor Ginsberg would forgo the privilege o (...)

6It appears that Ginsberg, who had now moved to Berkeley, had nursed a similar idea for some time.1 Whether it was himself, or Rexroth, who settled the details of the famous October reading, has hitherto remained unclear.2 Ginsberg had just enrolled in graduate school at UC Berkeley, and worked nights at Robbie's Cafeteria on Telegraph Avenue for tuition money; yet he found time to meet with other prospective participants and make the final arrangements for the event. The reading was euphoniously and aptly called "Six Poets at Six Gallery," and featured Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, all introduced by Kenneth Rexroth - a panel organized on a friendly, more than professional, basis. Several important local poets were conspicuously absent from it, like Robert Duncan (whose Faust Foutu had been read at the Six Gallery shortly before), or Jack Spicer, or Kenneth Patchen. on the other hand, many key figures in the yet-to-be-born Beat movement attended: Kerouac in the aisles, passing on wine and occasional joints for the "happy Apocalypse" Ginsberg had promised his audience, and Ferlinghetti, Cassady, Orlovsky, ready for moral and oral support. The reading had been conceived as a party rather than as a show: reading verse was a mere pretext, getting together was poetry - a typical constituent of the kind of popular culture propagated by Beat writers. The mimeographed cards Ginsberg sent around for advance promotion of the event, through their unusual convivial tone made poetry only one ingredient in the recipe for common happiness:

"Six poets at the Six Gallery. Kenneth Rexroth, M. C. Remarkable collection of angels all gathered at once in the same spot. Wine, music, dancing girls, serious poetry, free satori. Small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event." (CHARTERS, 240)

  • 3 "I read last, and was very drunk," Ginsberg says now, "and I gave a very wild, funny, tearful read (...)

7Ginsberg later confessed to being drunk and a little overheated when he read Howl before the hundred or so people packed into the Gallery on October 13, 1955,3 but he kept memories of an "ideal" evening in which poetry had been the medium not merely of communication, but of communion. The evening inaugurated a new pattern of interchange between the poet and the public, which would, through the late 1950's and the 1960's, become the trademark of the "counter-culture" in America. The enthusiastic crowd of the Six Gallery pioneered a return to a less impure (Rexroth called it "direct communication") relationship between writer and reader, performer and audience.

8The tremendous impact of the evening on all participants and the local literary community leaves no doubt as to its being "the night of the birth of the San Francisco Renaissance," as Jack Kerouac observed. The event exceeded the scope of the pleasant social gathering Ginsberg had planned; it harbingered a change that, through all forms of art, would affect the fabric of American society as a whole for the years to come. Looking back to the sources of that change in 1969, Kenneth Rexroth could measure the evolution of poetry and of American culture over a little more than a decade:

"As in the days before the city and the alphabet, poetry has become once again an art of direct communication, one person speaking or singing directly to others. Along with this change has come, in the words of the poems themselves, a constant, relentless, thoroughgoing criticism of all the values of industrial, commercial civilization. Poetry today is people poetry as it was in tribal society and it performs the same function in a worldwide counter-culture. It is the most important single factor in the unity of that counter-culture and takes the place of ideologies and constitutions, even of religious principles." (REXROTH, 148)

9This hyperbolic view of "counter-culture," so typical of Rexroth, gave poetry a mandate to destabilize western civilization, then to reconstruct it on a "popular" basis. Rexroth was surely right in insisting that the counterculture embodied in the Beat, and later the Hippie, movements eschewed nihilism. Contrary to what highbrow pundits claimed when describing it as simply subversive and socially destructive, counter-culture - and poets particularly - could serve higher designs than just channelling protest. What the establishment deliberately ignored was the wide range of usages allowed for the term "counter". The prefix, in the public mind, always referred to patterns of opposition, making "counter-culture" a blueprint of "countercurrent". Whereas other meanings were totally eclipsed, like those expressing complementarity or similitude - as in "countertype" or "counterfoil". The poetic revival that Ginsberg and his friends inaugurated had no roots in the common political ideologies; the Beat poets were not especially interested in debating national or international issues, as their elders had done over the thirties. They did not seek opportunities to run "counter" to any prevailing political doctrine or opinion. Like so many other poets, as W. H. Auden noted, "their natural interest is in singular individuals and personal relations, while politics and economics are concerned with large numbers of people, hence with the human average... and with impersonal, to a great extent involuntary, relations." (JONES, 47) Above all, they envisioned culture as a celebration of life and that imposed a rejection of all the values of modern commercial civilization usually categorized as "alienating" for the individual: they accordingly sought a kind of freedom that extended comprehensively from social status to language itself. In that sense only they could be charged with trying to overturn established patterns, both in society and in literature. Rexroth diagnosed there the influence of surrealist theoretician André Breton (REXROTH, 107), and William Everson an impulse to "drive back to energy sources in frontier individualism" (EVERSON, 122). Critics of the mainstream, however, definitely adhered to the more damning rhetoric of order and chaos, and, like Stanley Kunitz, were satisfied with cataloguing the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance as outlaws, young people "whose triad of predilection consists of homosexuality, dope and jazz." And public opinion was all too happy to accept the labels provided by such benevolent defenders of cultural standards - an easy means of exorcising the dangers of counter-culture contagion. "I am aware," Kunitz declared, "of the existence of a small, but articulate fraction of the young who glory in their non-adjustment; who prefer, given the difficulty of maintaining a loyal opposition within the framework of our society, to dramatize themselves as outlaws; [...] whose preference is for a literature based on the anti-literary..." (ECKMAN, 391). Kunitz's view, though, tended to lay greater emphasis on the writer's dissent with the established social order than on the literary merits of his production. Oddly enough, an exactly reverse process inspired the judicial authorities who eventually had to rule on Howl and its adequacy to moral standards: the courts would first try to discern any aesthetic value in the poem before deciding on the degree of its social impropriety.

10Immediately after Ginsberg's Six Gallery reading, Ferlinghetti sent him a note, repeating Emerson's message to Whitman upon reading Leaves of Grass: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." But Ferlinghetti added a line: "When do I get the Manuscript?" (HERRON, 111).

11Ever since he had opened the City Lights bookstore in June 1953 with Peter Martin, a sociologist at San Francisco State University, as partner, Ferlinghetti had nursed the idea of going into the publishing business. His first attempt was a film magazine which went by the same name as the store - and Chaplin's film - "City Lights". Selling books, however, at first proved more lucrative than editing magazines; and "City Lights" ceased publication after a few issues. Martin left for New York in 1954 and Shigeyoshi Murao replaced him, and looked after the bookstore while Ferlinghetti began publishing avant-garde prose and poetry. By 1955, he had already started a collection of poetry volumes called the "Pocket Poets Series," the first three of them signed by himself, Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen. He contemplated Ginsberg as number four in the series.

  • 4 One of the Congress's secondary powers enumerated in the Constitution of the United States, Art. 1 (...)

12The first edition of Howl, as Ferlinghetti recalled, was printed in England by Villiers, went through Customs and began being sold at City Lights Bookstore in the fall of 1956. America was just coming out of the McCarthy witch hunts and the trauma of widespread suspicion against antipatriotic activities. After Eisenhower's reelection, the Democratic Congress was eager to display the entire range of its constitutional prerogatives, including its control over the mail,4 which it had consistently used as an oblique means of censorship, and a devious way of curtailing the freedom of opinion.

13A second printing of Howl was thus intercepted by Customs on March 25, 1957, in enforcement of the 1930 Tariff Act (Section 305). This step was taken less on the basis of some breach of regulations, than as an attempt to censor a text which a few conservative officials, impervious to the notion of literary value, had deemed improper for distribution. Customs collector Chester MacPhee was thus the first to openly consider Howl as obscene. He was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle to have said: "The words and the sense of the writing is obscene... You wouldn't want your children to come across it." (FERLINGHETTI, 125)

  • 5 "Big Days For Bards At Bay" (Life, 43: 105-8, September 9, 1957), a picture story of the San Franc (...)

14Neither the American Civil Liberties Union, which immediately sided with the publisher, nor the United States Attorney in San Francisco, who refused to follow up the seizure with a court action, appeared to share the Customs' viewpoint. Yet, it took about two months to break the mulish obstinacy of Customs which finally released the book on May 29. In the meantime, an offset edition of Howl had been printed in the United States, not only removing the case entirely from Customs jurisdiction, but making the text unrestrictedly available to readers. By then, this widely publicized censorship case had already made the poem famous, locally if not yet throughout the nation. But had the matter ended there, Ginsberg's Howl might never have echoed farther than Oakland Hills. It was the narrow-minded, zealous reaction of San Francisco city authorities which brought the case to national attention, with an obscenity charge, and a subsequent trial that extended over the whole summer of 1957. By the time the proceedings were driving to a close, the trial and its object were making headlines, even in the nationwide popular magazine Life.5 Also, incidentally, about 10,000 copies of Howl had been sold thus far by City Lights - an impressive result for such a small publishing house.

15The case was tried before a city court in San Francisco, and the proceedings handled by Judge Clayton W. Horn. The charge was violation of Section 311. 3 of the Penal Code of the State of California, i. e. wilfully and lewdly printing, publishing, and selling obscene and indecent writings, papers and books (to wit Howl and Other Poems). The People's Case was presented by Deputy District Attorney Ralph McIntosh; the counsels for defendants Ferlinghetti and Murao were three of the best lawyers in town, Jake ("Never Plead Guilty") Ehrlich, Lawrence Speiser and Albert Bendich (the latter two being provided by the American Civil Liberties Union), who refused to be payed for the job.

16Though City Lights was the explicit object of prosecution, it took little time to realize that Howl and its assumed obscenity would be the central issue in court debates. This obscenity issue would bring up two types of closely interrelated questions: first those appended to the determination by the Court of the defendants' guilt or innocence - i. e. assessing the position of Howl in respect to the prevailing state and federal statutes. That was purely legal business. Then those dealing with the notion of obscenity itself, in its relation to the esthetic and social value of literary texts. Answers to the latter obviously bore on the final verdict. While it may seem highly artificial to thus separate the arguments and the decision in the same legal case, the enforced division will serve to demonstrate that the Howl trial was basically one of opinion, that what was put at stake in Judge Horn's court, was the artist's freedom of expression together with his public role in modern American society - in this respect, the petty nature of the case failed to match the importance and significance of the issues discussed.

  • 6 Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, Congressional Quarterly, Washington, D. C., 1979, p. 428.

17From a purely legal standpoint, defining obscenity had always proved hopelessly elusive for the courts. English law, even in the Victorian era, had found it difficult to supply standards by which to evaluate obscene material. The often anthologized Regina v. Hicklin case (1868) had produced a test for tracing obscenity, which was "whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscene is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influence..."6, which - naturally for the times - presupposed the existence of social criteria to differentiate those exposed to the contamination of depravity, from those definitely immune from it.

18The moral standards of the Victorian period hardly extended beyond the First World War and American courts had to set up their own formula for defining obscenity - which they did in a series of cases involving foreign literary texts banned from the US territory by Customs in the 1920's and 30's, and a few native productions too. Théophile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin came under censorship fire in 1922 and was tried in New York; Arthur Schnitzler's Casanova's Homecoming, Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre, and Joyce's Ulysses received similar treatment. The latter case marked a turning point. District Judge John M. Woolsey decided that nothing obscene could be traced in Ulysses and went on to praise both its esthetic value and its essential coherence:

"It is because Joyce has been loyal to his technique and has not funked its necessary implications, but has honestly attempted to tell fully what his characters think about, that he has been the subject of so many attacks and that his purpose has been so often misunderstood and misrepresented. For his attempt sincerely and honestly to realize his objective has required him incidentally to use certain words which are generally considered dirty words and has led at times to what many think is a too poignant preoccupation with sex in the thoughts of the characters."(JOYCE, x)

  • 7 US v. One Book entitled Ulysses, 72 F. 2d 705-8 (2d Circuit, 1937). Ibid., p. 428.

19The judge first determined that Ulysses had not been written with pornographic intent; in addition, using the prevalent definition of obscenity then used by the Courts (i. e., tending to stir the sex impulses or to lead to sexually impure and lustful thoughts), he found that the book failed to excite such impulses and thoughts. He accordingly lifted the ban on the distribution of Ulysses in America. His decision would be confirmed in Appeals, by Judge Augustus Hand, who proposed a lasting new standard for obscenity: "we believe that the proper test of whether a given book is obscene is in its dominant effect. In applying this test, relevancy of the objectionable parts to the theme, the established reputation of the work in the estimation of approved critics, if the book is modern, [...] are persuasive pieces of evidence."7 Sincerity, original intent, and internal coherence - relevance of prurient parts to the writer's aim -, as proofs of literary excellence, could then be also used as legal arguments against obscenity charges. This is what might be called redeeming artistic integrity. It was applied to Howl as it had been to Joyce's novel. And Judge Horn's decision in San Francisco was welcomed with a jubilation akin to Morris Ernst' s own, in 1933, upon the release of Ulysses: "It is a body-blow for the censors," he rejoiced. "The necessity for hypocrisy and circumlocution in literature has been eliminated. Writers need no longer seek refuge in euphemisms. They may now describe basic human functions without fear of the law." (JOYCE, v)

  • 8 Obscenity is unprotected by the First Amendment, declared the Supreme Court in Chaplinski v. New H (...)

20Not quite, though. It remained that obscenity was one of the categories of expression which did not qualify for protection by the First Amendment - a fact repeatedly confirmed by the Supreme Court,8 which compelled lower courts to shift their arguments from mere freedom of press or speech, to considerations of "intent" and "effect" and other notions that belong to the realm of literary criticism as surely as to jurisprudence.

21Such questions as "intent" and "effect" and "relevancy to the theme" came under investigation during the Howl trial. Judge Horn displayed greater concern, it seems, for the impact of literary texts on the general public, than for their author's averred or implicit objective. "It is the effect that counts," he maintained, "more than the purpose." And, quoting previous rulings in obscenity cases, he added: "The test in each case is the effect of the book, picture or publication considered as a whole, not upon any particular class, but upon all those whom it is likely to reach. In other words, you determine its impact upon the average person in the community." (EHRLICH, 120,121) In pinpointing the "public", or the potential readership as an ultimate test of the acceptability of literary works, the judiciary was merely following a natural trend of literary criticism, which in the course of a hundred years had moved from an investigation of the author's mind and motives to what William Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks called a "historicism turned toward the audience." In their short history of literary criticism, published a year after Howl, they reported a change in the focus of criticism which parallels the evolution we noted more specifically in the judicial definition of obscenity: "Until recently," they observed, "it was the normal aim of academic research to be able to announce: 'And thus we prove what the author was trying to say'... But the new mode, one which is more comprehensive and difficult... seems to entertain the aim of announcing: 'And thus we prove that the author's poem was addressed to the audience of his day, or to the real audience, or to the audience that mattered." (WINSATT & BROOKS, 732)

  • 9 Roth v. United States, 354 US 476 (1957). Quoted in EHRLICH, 121-2.

22Over a little less than a century, criticism and jurisprudence alike had abandoned the romantic conception of an elitist art and the attached vision of a "disengaged" artist, to incorporate the more modern notion of popular art, meant for the masses, and therefore subordinated to the common accepted standards of society. This, in turn, impelled the guardians of freedoms, and of social cohesiveness, to mark out a territory of exclusion for obscene art, using widespread popular standards of ethics as their leveling rod. "You may ask yourself," a magistrate asked the jury in one previous obscenity trial, "does it offend the common conscience of the community by present-day standards. In this case, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you and you alone are the exclusive judges of what the common conscience of the community is, and in determining that conscience you are to consider the community as a whole, young and old, educated and uneducated, the religious and the irreligious - men, women, children."9

23What these remarks suggested was that for the public the best protection against obscenity lay in public opinion itself, in self-protection through esthetic discrimination between valuable works of art, and trash. Such insight into the realm of artistic excellence would be encouraged, as Judge Brandeis had insisted, not through a curtailment of basic rights but through education and the deterrent of punishment for violations of the law. (EHRLICH, 118) Judge Horn, in his decision on Howl, followed the same liberal line, maintaining that "the best method of censorship is by the people as self-guardians of public opinion and not by government." (EHRLICH, 126) The message was clear: the judiciary would never allow any overlapping between the law and public opinion. Law could not be reasonably expected to forbid prudishness, for example, any more than to deny poets the right to describe reality in the crudest terms. The First and Fourteenth Amendments had been conceived as means of limiting arbitrary authority, not as ways of empowering the courts to arbitrarily determine what freedoms were compatible with social order and what were not. Yet, if the Supreme Court was always careful to avoid the pitfalls of moral prescription, it nevertheless proposed standards (in the Roth case) which deliberately made obscenity an open issue.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 487-8.

24Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote: "All ideas having the slightest redeeming social importance - unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion - have the full protection of the guarantees..."10 In the case of literary texts, it was then left to the courts to evaluate their "social importance". But the very fact of wrenching the writer from the ghetto of estheticism was in itself a tremendous improvement: in the 1950's poets were thus granted a social role which they had been denied in the 1930's, namely awakening the social consciousness of the masses, influencing public opinion, opening the eyes of many on their own alienation. Whether this was done obscenely or not was only secondary to the issue.

25In his ruling on Howl, Judge Horn very astutely began by declaring the poem socially enlightening. "I do not believe that Howl is without redeeming social importance," he wrote (EHRLICH, 119). He then downplayed the coarseness and vulgarity of the language used by Ginsberg. Just like Judge Woolsey in the Ulysses case, he indicated that the obscenity of words depended on varying criteria - locale, time, the mind of the community, the prevailing mores - which precluded any permanent definition. "The familiar four-letter words that are so often associated with sexual impurity," Judge Horn observed, "are, almost without exception, of honest Anglo-Saxon ancestry, and were not invented for purely scatological effect." (EHRLICH, 123) His final conclusion was that obscenity should be censured only if it incited people to sexual depravity - which was not the case for Howl - and that in considering the poem, it would be "well to remember the motto: "Honni soit qui mal y pense." (Evil to him who evil thinks.)" (EHRLICH, 127) Judge Horn thus humorously reminded American readers that the best kind of censorship is exercised in the mind and that self-regulation exceeds all statutes in efficiency.

26His decision that Howl was not obscene gratified the entire literary community on the West Coast. Mark Schorer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Kenneth Rexroth, Herbert Blau and other witnesses for the defense had not testified in vain and revealed to the world the immense talent of Allen Ginsberg. Two points remained obscure in the picture, however: the concept of obscenity had never been fully elucidated. Its relation to indecency, vulgarity or profanity, on the "soft" side, and to pornography on the "hard" one, remained an open matter liable to endless interpretations. Some felt the court had evaded responsibilities by feeding the whole problem back to the public and to individual consciences. They failed to see that this was no sleight of hand on Judge Horn's part. He merely restored the reader to his preeminent position as opinion-maker. Freedom of speech and press also implied freedom for every reader to decide whether a book suited his own moral standards and to keep or discard it accordingly. No court, in such matters, could substitute its own opinion for the public's.

27Secondly, it remained unclear why, in the first place, the poem had been deemed obscene: was it a mere matter of verbal indecency, or, more probably, that the text posed the threat of incitement to anti-social or immoral action? The question found an oblique answer in the recognition of the poem's social importance. Judge Horn could have gone no further without unduly stretching his competence. Yet, what was here at stake, really, was less the offensive nature of Ginsberg's language than the truthfulness of his vision of American contemporary society: if his poem truly be a "cry of pain and protest" or an indictment, a social criticism "as Luther Nichols and Mark Schorer pointed out during the trial, then, somehow, his radical, unsettling Howl had to be muffled. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had sensed the connection between the poet's shocking language and his social commitment: in one of William Hogan's San Francisco Chronicle columns, on May 19, 1957, he had shifted the burden of obscenity from text to context: "It is not the poet," he maintained, "but what he observes which is revealed as obscene. The great obscene wastes of Howl are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms..." (FERLINGHETTI, 126)

28In assuming the existence of some objective obscenity in the world to be, like beauty, divulged by the poet, Ferlinghetti invested the artist with a messianic, not a depraving, role. The whole and only extent of his obscenity was to expose and denounce evils which society had rather keep away from public light. Obscenity, Jean Baudrillard noted, could well proceed from excessive revelation, or staging crude and unequivocal representations of reality:

  • 11 "More visible than the visible, that is obscenity. More invisible than the invisible, that is secr (...)

"Plus visible que le visible, tel est l'obscène. Plus invisible que l'invisible, c'est le secret. La scène est de l'ordre du visible. Mais il n'y a plus de scène dans l'obscène, il n'y a plus que la dilatation de la visibilité de toutes choses jusqu'à l'extase. L'obscène est la fin de toute scène. En plus, il est de mauvaise augure, comme son nom l'indique. Car cette hypervisibilité des choses est aussi l'imminence de leur fin, le signe de l'apocalypse." (BAUDRILLARD, 61)11

29Ginsberg had adopted a definite apocalyptic tone in Howl; and like Robinson Jeffers, he relished playing the prophet of doom for the modern world. Yet, much as the readers of 1948 resented Jeffers' indictment of warmongering America in The Double Axe, the public of 1956 - except perhaps on the West Coast - were hardly inclined to listen to Ginsberg's "howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit", according to Richard Eberhardt's phrase (EBERHARDT, 145) One of the pioneers of the San Francisco Renaissance, William Everson (Brother Antoninus) remarked that not only the implications of the poem, but its experimental form itself, cost Ginsberg much of his early support, even in the scholarly community. An intense defensive reaction set in against this particularly flamboyant iconoclasm, and "for a few years you could hardly find anyone who would say a good word for it." (EVERSON, 117) This did not prevent City Lights from selling around 500,000 copies of Howl in the next two decades - quite an achievement for a book of poems.

  • 12 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Note on Poetry in San Francisco," Chicago Review, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 1 (...)

30Other obscenity trials have been held in the United States over the last thirty years, but none came as close as the Howl case to acknowledging the social function of the poet. The criteria for evaluating obscene material evolved with the prevailing moral climate. Judges increasingly demanded that books be patently offensive, and not merely "appealing to prurient interest," as in the past. Their enduring uneasiness with the very notion of obscenity encouraged them to be sometimes more liberal than public opinion itself - as in the case of Lenore Kandel's Love Poems or Zap Comics, both published by City Lights, and which went much further than Howl in the explicit portrayal of the sexual practices of homo americanus. They seemed ready to agree with Judge Horn in trusting "the ability of our people to reject noxious literature," (EHRLICH, 127), and their capacity to take the evaluation of literary merit from the courts' hands into their own. Poetry, in a way, had been returned to its original habitat, the street; it had become, all these nights of poetic carousing in San Francisco, an oral message, unrestrained by the formality of the printed page, whether it be textbooks, quarterlies, anthologies or legal codes. The San Francisco revival was also that of the poet's social conscience. "What is important," said Lawrence Ferlinghetti on recalling the outbursts of 1956-57, is that this poetry is using its eyes and ears as they have not been used for a number of years [...] Finally, in some larger sense, it all adds up to the beginning of a very inevitable thing - the resocialization of poetry."12

31As for Jake Ehrlich, he had warned against a form of organized censorship wich, he felt, might threaten western democracies:

"There is a greater peril to books today than at any other time since the invention of the printing press. The peril does not flow from sex censorship, but from the rise of authoritarian power and the attendant regimentation of thought and opinion. If the world turns totalitarian, there may be a holocaust in books beside which Savonarola's Florentine bonfires will pale into utter insignificance." (EHRLICIH, xiv).

32Not only the courts' subsequent rulings, but also the popular success of so-called "obscene" literature, proved him wrong.



BAUDRILLARD Jean, Les Stratégies Fatales, Paris: Grasset, 1983.

CHARTERS Ann, Kerouac: A Biography, New York: Warner Books, 1973.

EBERHARDT Richard, Of Poetry and Poets, Urban, III. University of Illinois Press, 1979.

ECKMAN Frederick, "Neither Tame Nor Fleecy," Poetry, Vol. 90 (Sept. 1957), pp. 386-97.

EHRLICH J. W., ed., Howl of the Censors, San Carlos, Calif.: Nourse Publishing Company, 1961.

EVERSON William, Archetype West, Berkeley: Oyez, 1976.

FERLINGHETTI Lawrence, "Horn on Howl," Evergreen Review, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 145-158.

GINSBERG Allen, Howl and Other Poems, San Francisco: City Lights Books (The Pocket Poets Series, No. 4), 1956.

HERRON Don, The Literary World of San Francisco & Its Environs, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1985.

JARRELL Randall, Poetry & The Age, New York: The Ecco Press, 1980.

JONES Richard, ed., Poetry and Politics, New York: William Morrow, 1985.

JOYCE James, Ulysses, New York: Random House (Vintage Books), 1961.

KRAMER Jane, Allen Ginsberg in America, New York: Random House, 1968.

LIFE, "Big Days for Bards at Bay", No. 43 (September 9,1957), pp. 105-8.

MARIANI Paul, William Carlos Williams. A New World Naked, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

MERRILL Thomas F., Allen Ginsberg, New York: Twayne Publishers (TUSAS, No. 161), 1969.

REXROTH Kenneth, The Alternative Society, New York: Herder & Herder, 1972.

STOETZEL Jean & GIRARD Alain, Les Sondages d'Opinion Publique, Paris: P. U. F., 1973.

TOINET Marie-France, Le Système Politique des États-Unis, Paris: P. U. F., 1987.

WINSATT Jr. William K. & BROOKS Cleanth, Literary Criticism: A Short History (4 vols.), London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970.


1 Ann Charters declares that Ginsberg was prompted to materialize this idea after meeting with Gary Snyder on 8 September 1955. She adds that Allen "told John Allen Ryan that even if it wouldn't be an evening of great poetry, it would be 'a great social occasion,' and he worked hard on the program." (CHARTERS, 239)

2 Memory serving donkeys better than poets, neither Rexroth nor Ginsberg would forgo the privilege of being the intiator of this reading.
Rexroth, placing the event in 1956 (!) beamingly observes that "the proprietors [of the Six Gallery] were so delighted that they asked me to arrange other readings." (REXROTH, 101)
Jane Kramer, reporting on the genesis of the reading from Ginsberg's own reminiscences, wrote: " Ginsberg had arranged the reading for Wally Hedrick, a painter who had opened an artists' cooperative called the Six Gallery, and wanted to get it off to what Ginsberg modestly calls 'a lively start'. Ginsberg had invited Snyder, Whalen, Lamantia, and McClure to read with him, persuaded Rexroth to introduce them, and mailed out a few hundred mimeographed postcards..." (KRAMER, 48)

3 "I read last, and was very drunk," Ginsberg says now, "and I gave a very wild, funny, tearful reading of the first part of 'Howl'. Like I really felt shame and power reading it, and every time I'd finish a long line Kerouac would shout, 'Yeah!' or 'So there!' or 'Correct!' or some little phrase, which added a kind of extra note of bop humor to the whole thing. It was like a jam session, and I was very astounded because Howl was a big, long poem and yet everybody seemed to understand and at the same time to sympathize with it. Like this was the end of the McCarthy scene, and here I was talking about super-Communist pamphlets on Union Square and the national Golgotha and the Fascists and all the things that turned out to be implicit in a sort of social community revolution that was actually going on. The evening ended up with everybody absolutely radiant and happy with talk and kissing and later on big happy orgies of poets." (KRAMER, 48)

4 One of the Congress's secondary powers enumerated in the Constitution of the United States, Art. 1, Section 8.

5 "Big Days For Bards At Bay" (Life, 43: 105-8, September 9, 1957), a picture story of the San Francisco poetry renaissance and the ongoing obscenity trial.

6 Guide to the U.S. Supreme Court, Congressional Quarterly, Washington, D. C., 1979, p. 428.

7 US v. One Book entitled Ulysses, 72 F. 2d 705-8 (2d Circuit, 1937). Ibid., p. 428.

8 Obscenity is unprotected by the First Amendment, declared the Supreme Court in Chaplinski v. New Hampshire, 315 US 568-72 (1942), because it is "no essential part of any exposition of ideas and [is] of... slight social value as a step to truth." Ibid., p. 428.

9 Roth v. United States, 354 US 476 (1957). Quoted in EHRLICH, 121-2.

10 Ibid., p. 487-8.

11 "More visible than the visible, that is obscenity. More invisible than the invisible, that is secrecy. The scene belongs to the realm of the visible. Yet there is no more scene in obscenity; merely the visibility of all things dilated to ecstasy. Obscenity is the end of all scenes. Moreover it is a bad omen, as its etymology indicates. For the hypervisibility of things marks their impending termination, the sign of apocalypse."

12 Lawrence Ferlinghetti, "Note on Poetry in San Francisco," Chicago Review, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Spring 1958), p. 4.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1989

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