One would normally assume things are more permissive now regarding what is considered obscene than was the case fifty years ago, but there is an example in the USA at the moment to show that is not always the case. Fifty years ago, a landmark court case in the USA found that Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” was not obscene, as it had “redeeming social importance” and literary and social merit. However, as the New York Times bemoans in an editorial, a local radio station is now unwilling to broadcast a reading of the poem for fear of being fined huge amounts for obscenity by the Federal Communication Commission.
The New York Times quotes a lawyer named Ronald Collins saying “Howl” has been repeatedly broadcast over the years, but “now it’s a completely different era. The F.C.C. made it clear it has a zero-tolerance policy for offensive language and images.”
However, using a method of avoiding the fine which would not have been available fifty years ago, the radio network has broadcast a reading of it online. The reading is by Ginsberg himself (who died in 1997), and you can listen to the poem, and others talking about the poem, its history and censorship issues, by clicking here.
To read a text version of the poem, click here (needless to say, if you’re offended by rude words or descriptions, best not to click there). It’s a long and rather turgid read in my view, but then I don’t profess to have any great insight into what has literary merit, particularly when it comes to poetry. And that’s different to whether or not it should be allowed to be broadcast.