Silent Howl

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.

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  1. Andrew, thanks for linking to this I missed that story and “Howl” is one of my favourite poems.

    By the way, did you notice at the end of the NYT piece they included a quote of Ginsberg’s,
    “Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”
    Do you know in what context he said that? I googled around a bit but couldn’t get to the bottom of it.

  2. Occasionally.I have seen references to Ginsberg on American blogs etc.His writings are like living through the present and listening to the ABC.Farmers ,can you believe it are a hope now from Flanagan of climate change! With a little bit of desperation in his voice,and I hear of the four starving for four days farmers,and a voice I would hire to tell the world we are on our last wimp! Allen Ginsburg will be opening Federal Parliament next as read stanza as the great revolution of interpretative Molochianisms becomes the grounded reality with completely hired Achilles Heels. I bellowed today in the privacy of house falling down, I am not in Unison of unity with you John of Howard on anything!Repeat function.Will he cry sadness if a soldier on his way to work in Australia gets killed on our roads!?Dingoes of cross bred type howling for me to join the participatory matter of looking for work,but only feeds the statisticians. I retired from being a dope-smoking bore years ago Ginsburg was being read by university students around me in the early 7os. Long warm summers in the Australian alienation ahead if Ginsburg is again important,better to read Henderson in the SMH and see if he has a valid point.

  3. What I think is the rather interesting part of this is that it’s all self-censorship by the media outlets themselves, fearful of heavy fines.

    The Christian “family values” people have found their voice and are ready to complain or boycott at the slightest glimpse of a breast.

    (Interestingly, I read that when Jackon Jackson famously flashed her nipple during the Super Bowl a few years back, it generated only 5 complaints in Canada – where is was being broadcast simultaneously.)

  4. mick:

    That quote from Ginsberg is very insightful.

    I haven’t read the poem, but I think the world might be a better place without it, if it is filled with offensive language and lewd descriptions.

  5. Thanks for this Andrew,

    It seems I have heard this poem a hundred times over throughout my life, and yet it is the first time I actually listened to the full original version.

    Unfortunately in the last eight years we’ve seen a return to xenophobic nationalism and Howl offers a voice of dissent and criticism that is even more relevant today.

    The outcome of our xenophobia and prosperity and lust for power is that political parties have become fearful of dissent, and stifle it even within their own ranks. Where are the voices of dissent from the small ‘l’ liberals in the response to the Sudanese immigration issue? Does the license for dissent hinge on the strength of one’s particular side of politics?

    Imagine if the Democrats or Greens took the approach of the Major parties in relation to conviction politics? “We can’t hold a line right now, but if you give us power, we might, possibly, maybe, one day lead with some conviction and vision.”

    But of course a politician’s modus operandi is largely responsive to the constituency. Is this limp, grey, ‘don’t rock the boat’ politics the only type that Australians can countenance these days? What are we frightened of?

  6. Coral,

    It is actually the point of the Ginsberg poem. If lewd language is such a threat to our society, what about war, famine, injustice, disease, apathy and hypocrisy? Ginsberg was passionate about voicing dissent, speaking against a society which chose to censor its languange but could not summon the courage to censor its own insatiable desire for egomania, consumerism and selfishness. So I think the world is a much better place because of such poems like Howl. It challenges the status quo and those who lack the intellectual integrity to ever question their own motivations.

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