“Howl” is now feared obscene

San Francisco Chronicle


‘Howl’ too hot to hear

50 years after poem ruled not obscene, radio fears to air it

Fifty years ago today, a San Francisco Municipal Court judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg’s Beat-era poem “Howl” was not obscene. Yet today, a New York public broadcasting station decided not to air the poem, fearing that the Federal Communications Commission will find it indecent and crush the network with crippling fines.

Free-speech advocates see tremendous irony in how Ginsberg’s epic poem – which lambastes the consumerism and conformism of the 1950s and heralds a budding American counterculture – is, half a century later, chilled by a federal government crackdown on the broadcasting of provocative language.

In the new media landscape, the “Howl” controversy illustrates how indecency standards differ on the Internet and on the public airwaves. Instead of broadcasting the poem on the air today, New York listener-supported radio station WBAI will include a reading of the poem in a special online-only program called “Howl Against Censorship.” It will be posted on www.pacifica.org, the Internet home of the Berkeley-based Pacifica Foundation, because online sites do not fall under the FCC’s purview.

Read entire article including quotes from Ferlinghetti.


‘Howl’ online

Hear a recording of Allen Ginsberg reciting his poem “Howl” in January 1959 in Chicago on “Howl Against Censorship” in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the San Francisco court decision finding the poem was not obscene. The program will be posted at 9 a.m. today at www.pacifica.org.



The poem

The beginning of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz …

The ruling

What San Francisco Municipal Court Judge Clayton Horn, in his ruling on Oct. 3, 1957, said of “Howl”:

“The theme presents unorthodox and controversial ideas. Coarse and vulgar language is used in treatment and sex acts are mentioned, but unless the book is entirely lacking in social importance it cannot be held obscene.”

Online resources

For more information about how the FCC defines obscene, indecent and profane broadcasts: www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/obscene.html

Voice your opinion

To contact the FCC or to file a complaint: www.fcc.gov/cgb/complaints_general.html

Consumer and mediation specialists also are available Monday through Friday, 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. PDT to answer questions and assist in filing a complaint. Call toll-free at (888) 225-5322 (voice) or (888) 835-5322 (TTY).

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