It’s the Anniversary of the Howl Obscenities Trial

It was 57 years ago today that the Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl was seized by U.S. Customs agents on charges of obscenity (read Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times piece on the Howl trial). The resulting obscenities trial found its publisher,  Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights, defeating the charges and scoring a victory for freedom of expression and, for that matter, indie publishing.

Part Cassandra myth, part legal thriller – obscenities trials have long been a personal obsession of mine. The list of bright minds who have endured them (James Joyce, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsburg, Lenny Bruce, Oscar Wilde and hundreds of others) is woefully long, especially for a country that does much of its world-beating in the name of free speech and the freedom of the press.

Mine is a simpatico born of self-important adolescent persecution fantasies – the neurotic cornerstone from I’ve chiseled the bedrock of my career. I began this process in earnest during my freshman year in high school when my English teacher realized that I was faking my “current event” assignments. Instead of paraphrasing newspaper articles as instructed, I made up the news entirely. In my opinion, this was a more creative exercise. In lieu of a gold star, however, I received detention.

That was the first time I was officially penalized by a state entity for putting words in a particular order. Good for me. The experience, however, whetted my palate for First Amendment issues – no matter how misguided its impetus. I was later reprimanded for a stage play that entailed comic, if lurid, notions of doom, sexual innocence and a rubber chicken that does not bear recounting, though it did affirm my belief that speech should be free, no matter how cheap the talk.

For the record, I’ve never been censored at my current post, though I have willingly made the nips and tucks necessary to conform to the “community standard of decency.” And, since I’m always, relatively new to town, I defer to my betters in assessing what these may be.  So far, so good. The closest I’ve come to my own obscenities trial was in the early 90s during the desktop publishing renaissance. I was then printing SCAM Magazine, a satirical rag, in which my trusted friend and main correspondent Geoffrey Cain penned a mock obscenities trial transcript featuring its publisher in the starring role. If memory serves, I was vindicated on a technicality that somehow involved a crotchless monkey suit (Cain remains, in my estimation, a genius).

These notions came back to mind while reading author pal Jonah Raskin’s American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, a real page-turner that delves into the genesis of Ginsberg’s Howl, the legendary paean to finding personal truth amidst soul-crushing conformity, its subsequent obscenities trial and the enduring repercussions of both on our culture.

I was inspired, delighted and ready to pen my own indecent diatribe when I stumbled across Howl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit, in a bookstore in Napa Valley and very nearly lost my four-star lunch. The typeface was sufficiently similar to Ginsberg’s original City Lights publication that it caught my eye, but as I approached, the canine correlation revealed itself thanks to the odious cartoon dog on its cover.

I’ve got nothing against dogs and the proliferation of puppy publications, but it was irksome to later learn that the dog book comes up a notch above Ginsberg’s seminal poem on Now, this is obscene. Could not the authors have opted for the title “Growl” instead? Couldn’t they mark their literary territory by aiming their poochy stream of satire in another direction? Why not take Shakespeare’s great Dane for a walk – “To bark or…” – I daren’t finish the thought.

Even the lowly satirist knows not to meddle with sacred texts like Howl unless you considers a fatwa a career move. Fortunately for the disseminators of dog wit, the beats and their acolytes are lovers, not fighters, daddy-o, so the worst that might happen to them is mild vitriol contained is some schmuck’s column. Suffice it to say, dog wit makes obscenity a bitch.