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Audio
Third section of "Howl"

The Censorship of Ginsberg's Howl

HowlIn October 1955, Allen Ginsberg participated in the first poetry reading of his career at Six Gallery, where he and fellow San Francisco poets Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia came together to read in front of a full audience and, unknowingly, to make literary history. Ginsberg read his newest poem, "Howl." (3rd Section of "Howl," Audio 2:57)

The title had been suggested by his friend and fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac, for the powerful poem was an almost-primal release of pent-up frustration and rage. In an "extreme rhapsodic wail," Ginsberg expressed the ideals and anxieties of a generation alienated from mainstream society.

After the reading, Martha Rexroth (wife of Kenneth Rexroth) distributed a fifty-copy mimeographed edition of "Howl" and other poems read that evening. In 1956 Beat poet and owner of City Lights Books Lawrence Ferlinghetti published "Howl" in his new Pocket Poets series. Because of the strong content of the poetry, United States Customs officers and the San Francisco police seized the books, banned their sale, and charged Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg with publishing obscene material.

A lengthy court battle ensued, culminating in the decision that "Howl" was not without redeeming social importance, and the obscenity charges dropped. By the end of the trial in 1957, the book had generated immense publicity and Ginsberg became a nationally known poet and pivotal voice for the Beat movement.

Howl and other Poems has remained one of the best-selling volumes of American verse since its publication in 1956.

You can read the full text of "Howl" on-line or to learn more about the Beat poets take a look at The Beat Page, a RookNet project.

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