Credit Where Credit’s Due

Having never been exposed to a great deal of poetry in my private Christian high school, it would be an understatement to say that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl made an ‘impression’ on me the first time I read it at college. As time has gone on, my initial shock and dismissal of the work has subsided to a modest appreciation for Ginsberg’s innovation and insurrection during his time, since that required courage. I say this in regards to a number of things.

Firstly, it would have taken a great deal of courage to speak out like this in 1950’s America. While the group that was emerging at the time was beginning to make a name for themselves as the Beat generation, Ginsberg’s contributions cannot be overlooked in their antiestablishmentarianist movement and their efforts to take full advantage of free speech. In 1957 an obscenity trial was held in San Francisco, despite the fact that there was a cultural and artistic revolution going on at the time (a.k.a. The San Francisco Renaissance). Secondly, I admire Ginsberg’s bravery to simply commit to crafting such a book. As we discussed in class today, Ginsberg put out a few other collections of poetry prior to Howl and had a considerable body of work going before ever coming to what would be his end result. To break from the mold and create something so different and so clearly defined by its own despair and anger is very brave in my opinion. I’m not sure that I would ever allow myself as much artistic license to create something so out-of-the-ordinary as Ginsberg did.

Both of those things being said, I think it is interesting how relevant his work still is. Certainly, all good art survives the test of time (that being one of the primary categories for ‘quality’), but it is incredible the references it still receives. I was reading about its reception in 1955 and learned that the police arrested the publishing house’s owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for publishing what they deemed “obscene material.” Though I’m not terribly surprised by the arrest of such dissidents in such a conservative time period, I am surprised by the judge’s verdict. He acquitted Ferlinghetti, who later wrote “It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene.”

This debate still rages today in the artistic sphere and, interestingly enough, it does so all the way over in the U.K. If you’re interested, I’ve provided a link to an article I found citing the merits of the Ferlinghetti trial and the judge’s verdict on Ginsberg’s work. It’s amazing that stuff like this still comes up today as we consider the notion of censorship in the arts (a topic many of us avoid for various reasons, the primary one likely being ignorance to it).

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