March 25, 1955 (a Friday)

Allen Ginsberg

On this date, the U.S. Customs Bureau confiscated 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s book Howl, which had been printed in England. Ginsberg was openly gay, and this poem has a lot of references to homosexuality. The gay men in this poem generally do not seem to be involved in monogamous relationships with one other person.

Officials alleged that the book was obscene, particularly objecting to:

Line 36

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

But the next two lines, among many others, seem equally provocative:

Line 37

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

Line 38

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,

(You can listen to Ginsberg read Howl on Poets.org.)

City Lights, a publishing company and bookstore in San Francisco owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, proceeded to publish the book in the fall of 1956. The publication led to Ferlinghetti’s arrest on obscenity charges. Ferlinghetti was bailed out by the American Civil Liberties Union, which led the legal defense. Clayton Horn (a Sunday school teacher) was the judge for the case and had achieved notoriety earlier that year for sentencing five shoplifters to a screening of The Ten Commandments. The defense brought literary expert after literary expert (9 in total) to the stand to testify to the poem’s literary and social importance and on October 3 Judge Horn ruled the poem was of “redeeming social importance” and Ferlinghetti was cleared.

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