{National Poetry Month} “Howl”

On “Howl” by Natalya Lawren {guest writer}

“It is a howl of defeat … This poet sees through all the horrors he partakes of in the very intimate details of his poem. He avoids nothing but experiences it to the hilt. He contains it. Claims it as his own—and, we believe, laughs at it and has the time and effrontery to love a fellow of his choice and record that love in a well-made poem. Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” — William Carlos Williams in the introduction of Howl and Other Poems (1956)

One of the best known poems, and perhaps the most defining poem of the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance, “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg is a 112-line poem written in run-on lines in an almost prose-form, inspired in part by the style and format of  Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. It is infamous for it’s mentions of drugs, rock’n’roll, homosexuality.

I welcome you to read the poem if you have yet the pleasure.

Much of its notoriety stems from a trial “Howl” underwent called the Obscenity Trial, which started when a bookseller was arrested for selling a copy to an undercover policemen. Various writers, academics, and critics were called upon to testify on the matter of whether the poem had any redeeming social value. This controversial trial, added to the already-rising tide, made the country explode with support of the beats who have been long persecuted by the academia of literature for their alternative method of writing and subject.

The following are recorded excerpts and statements from both sides in regards to the trial:

“The words and the sense of the writing is obscene. You wouldn’t want your children to come across it.” —Chester MacPhee, San Francisco Collector of Customs, after his office seized 520 copies of the second printing of the book (March 25, 1957)

I found the following testimony interesting in that it delves into the concept of originality in the cross-examination. This is a common discussion among writers– the difference between copying and being influenced by other writer’s work, but it is not a discussion I would attribute to “Howl.” Nevertheless:

David Kirk, called as a witness on behalf of the people, being first duly sworn, testified as follows:

Direct examination by Mr. Ralph McIntosh, Deputy District Attorney

Q: Now, at my request you have looked at People’s Number One in Evidence, the edition called Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg?

A: I have.

Q: And have you formed an opinion, sir, as to whether or not that publication has any literary value?

A: I formed an opinion. It’s my opinion that if it has any literary value, it is negligible.

Q: Negligible. Can you explain that to us, Mr. Kirk, how you arrived at that opinion?

A: There are many bases for criticism, of course, subjective and objective. I endeavored to arrive at my opinion on an objective basis. For example, a great literary work, or even fairly great literary work, would obviously be exceedingly successful in form, but this poem is really just a weak imitation of a form that was used eighty to ninety years ago by Walt Whitman …

Cross-Examination of Kirk by Mr. J.W. Ehrlich, Defense Attorney

Q: You say that because Ginsberg copied that format, “Howl” has no value or merit, is that correct, sir?

A: That is correct. An imitation never does have the value of the original.

Q: Have you ever imitated anything, Mr. Kirk?

A: In forming what little style I have, of course I have. Every student in trying to form his own style obviously begins on a basis of imitation, not of just one writer, but of many writers.

Q: Well, then, in your opinion, Mr. Kirk, it is good to imitate, isn’t it?

A: As a student exercise, yes, but it does not create literature.

Q: Who did Walt Whitman copy?

A: To my knowledge, no one.

Q: How long have you reflected on “Howl”?

A: Two weeks would be the limit of my opportunity. However, I made up my mind after five minutes.

Q: Two weeks was the limit of your opportunity. And you reflected for a long, long time on Voltaire’s Candide, is that right?

A: Exactly. A great work of literature frequently conveys all kinds of challenges.

Q: Well, do you believe that if you reflected for another ten years on “Howl” that you might change your opinion?

A: I am quite certain I would not.

Q: You are quite certain today that you would not change your mind in the next ten years, is that right, sir?

A: That is correct.

Q: That is all.

—Transcript of People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, September 19, 1957

But for all those who opposed “Howl” for it’s obscenity, there was an equal amount of support for the writing.

I consider “Howl” to be the most significant single long poem to be published in this country since World War II, perhaps since Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” In some sense it is … an archetypal configuration of the mass culture which produced it. If it is also a condemnation of our official culture, if it is an unseemly voice of dissent, perhaps this is really why officials object to it. In condemning it, however, they are condemning their own American world. For it is not the poet 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, billboards and TV antennae … —Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, proprietor of City Light Bookstore, and publisher of Howl and Other Poems (May 19, 1957)

Mark Schorer called as a witness on behalf of the defense, being first duly sworn, testified as follows:

Direct Examination by Mr. J.W. Ehrlich, Defense Attorney

Q: I call your attention to the prosecution’s Exhibit One in Evidence. Please tell me whether you have had occasion to read this work?

A: Yes, I have read this work.

Q: Do you have an opinion as to the literary value of Exhibit One, to which we refer as Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg?

A: I think that “Howl,” like any other work of literature, attempts and intends to make a significant comment on or interpretation of human experience as the author knows it. And to that end he has devised what we would call an aesthetic structure to sort of organize his material to demonstrate his theme. The theme is announced in the opening sentence. I don’t know it; may I use my own copy?

The Court: Do you want the exhibit [a copy of the poem] to refresh your memory?

Q: Yes. The theme of the poem is announced very clearly in the opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” Then the following lines that make up the first part attempt to create the impression of a kind of nightmare world in which people representing “the best minds of my generation,” in the author’s view, are wandering like damned souls in hell. That is done through a kind of series of what one might call surrealistic images, a kind of state of hallucinations. [the poet] uses the rhythms of ordinary speech and also the diction of ordinary speech, language of ordinary speech, the language of vulgarity. I think I must stop with that. The language of the street, which is absolutely essential to the aesthetic purpose of the work.

A: So that the use of a particular word, which some think offensive, is necessary to paint the picture which the author tries to portray?

Q: Definitely …

Cross-Examination of Schorer by Mr. Ralph McIntosh, Deputy District Attorney

Q: And I presume you understand [“Howl” in its entirety], is that right?

A: I hope so. It’s not always easy to know that one understands exactly what a contemporary poet is saying, but I think I do …

Q: Well, what about the third line down … [do] you understand what “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” means?

A: Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose; that’s why it is poetry.

Q: What are “angelheaded hipsters”?

A: That’s a figurative statement: of “angelheaded”—I would say characters of some kind of celestial beauty like an angel; “hipsters” is a part of the vernacular today. I’m not sure I can translate it into any literal way, though.

Q: In other words, you don’t have to understand the words to—

A: You don’t understand the individual words taken out of their context. You understand the whole impression that is being created and in this first part particularly, where I have already used the word surrealist to describe it. You can no more translate that back into logical prose English than you can say what a surrealist painting means in words, because it’s not prose. Poetry is a heightened form of language through the use of figurative language and rhythm, sometimes rhyme.

Q: Each word by itself certainly means something, doesn’t it?

A: No. The words mean only in their context, I would say, and I can’t possibly translate, nor I am sure, can anyone in the room, translate the opening part of this poem into rational prose.

Q: That’s just what I wanted to find out.

A: It cannot be done, not can it be done with any poetry. A sonnet of Shakespeare’s cannot be translated into rational prose without becoming an entirely different thing.

—Transcript of People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, September 19, 1957

The Decision, Judge Clayton Horn, October 3, 1957:

The theme of “Howl” presents “unorthodox and controversial ideas.” Coarse and vulgar language is used in treatment and sex acts are mentioned, but unless the book is entirely lacking in “social importance” it cannot be held obscene. The point does not seem to have been specifically presented or decided in any of the cases leading up to Roth v. United States. No hard and fast rule can be fixed for the determination of what is obscene, because such determination depends on the locale, the time, the mind of the community and the prevailing mores …

There are a number of words used in Howl that are presently considered coarse and vulgar in some circles of the community; in other circles such words are in everyday use. It would be unrealistic to deny these facts. The author of Howl has used those words because he believed that his portrayal required them as being in character. The People state that it is not necessary to use such words and that others would be more palatable to good taste. The answer is that life is not encased in one formula whereby everybody acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern. No two persons think alike; we were all made from the same mold but in different patterns. Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words. Material is not obscene unless it arouses lustful thoughts of sex and tends to corrupt and deprave [a person] by inciting him to anti-social activity or tending to create a clear and present danger that he will be incited as the result of exposure thereto. If the material is disgusting, revolting, or filthy, to use just a few adjectives, the antithesis of pleasurable sexual desires is born, and it cannot be obscene ….

In considering material claimed to be obscene it is well to remember the motto: “Honi soit qui mal y pense.” (Evil to him who evil thinks.) Therefore, I conclude the book Howl and Other Poems does have some redeeming social importance, and I find the book is not obscene. The defendant is found not guilty.


I would not only call “Howl” significant for it’s response or questioning of free-speech. It is the beauty of speech, a powerful piece that conveys a sort of manifesto to a generation and confrontation of the world. It encapsulates the experience of many a beat writer– haphazard community, travel, and visits to insane asylums.

Ginsberg imparts is an indescribable power to the narrative that though incoherent at times is incoherently beautiful. Perhaps it is the frantic yet purposeful drive of the anaphora (repetition at the beginning of lines). Perhaps it is the not-quite euphemisms used to describe the life, or the wailing creature of social critique spattered throughout. Perhaps it is my own cumulative experience of reading the Beat Generation’s work.

I wrote this post because I think poetry always has and always will be at odds against the usual world, a controversy and a new discussion. “Howl” is still very much applicable in some ways, and the reason I spent so much time on the trial is it reflects the cultural and literary response to poetry in a drastic way, and a discussion of poetry as a form in general.

Let’s begin a discussion of our own. Part of poetry is to make us think and challenge our world; What strikes you about it? How has “Howl” changed your viewpoint? Has it?

As always, comment below or send anything to omphaloskepsis[at]stonhaus[dot]com.


thoughts? would love to hear them...

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