07 October 2005


October 7, 1955, fifty years ago today, the Beat poet phenomenon was ushered in by Allen Ginsberg at the first public reading of his passionate and electrifying poem Howl. Most “straights” did not get it. In fact, it was labeled as obscene and confiscated by US Customs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested by San Francisco Police for its dissemination. At the trial, upon hearing support for its release from poets, editors, professors and literary critics, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that it was not without even ‘the slightest redeeming social importance’. Subsequently, Howl became a harbinger for classics that followed it such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

I believe Ginsberg was very courageous. In a time when it was taboo, he was not afraid to wear his emotion on his sleeve. He was not afraid to fervently proclaim the injustices of the modern era and to throw light on industrial and corporate mentalities and the escalating strangulation of the creative process. And while a few chose to focus on the so-called obscenities, many more saw the truth in the spirit of his words. Those who could see past the references to genitalia and into the heart of the poem were rewarded with a new vision of the coming age. And that vision was not entirely sanguine.

I try to imagine how it must have been that night for Ginsberg with his peers intently focused on his performance. Literary luminaries the likes of Kerouac and Snyder, Whalen and McClure all in rapt attendance. I try to get a sense of the butterflies that must have danced and spun in his soul and mind that night.

Last night, in homage to the event I announced at dinner that I would read the poem aloud to my husband my fourteen year old son. My son walked out about half-way through but Lew stayed sweetly present. He gets things like this. Like Ginsberg and Dylan. And me.

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