The Importance of Obscenity in Allen Ginsberg’s Poem “Howl”

Vulgarity and obscenity are two adjectives often associated in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”.  Many people perceive his use of strong, sexual imagery to be gratuitous and frivolous.  The opinion that this work is more akin to an Alice Cooper, or Marilyn Manson, designed to shock and disgust with little to no merit, is not uncommon.  I, too, have been tempted to dismiss Ginsberg as a “shock jock” of sorts but to do so may be selling this work short.  “Howl” is obscene.  “Howl” is vulgar.  However, “Howl needs to be crass and rude to have the impact that Ginsberg had intended.

To begin, I would like define the words obscene and vulgar.  Obscene, according to Merriam-Webster, is defined as “repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles” (“Obscene” Def. 2c).  Vulgar can also be defined as “generally used” (“Vulgar” Def. 1a), or “of the usual” (“Vulgar” Def. 3c).  The moral and ethical principles of the time, represented by “Moloch” in the second part of “Howl”, are the constructs which Ginsberg is attacking.  Without the lewd imagery our stomachs would not turn, our minds would not gasp, and our sensibilities would not feel threatened.  In addition, the acts and language used in “Howl” are representatives of the reality of the Beats, of their people, their ‘vulgar.’

The feeling of Ginsberg, and the Beats in large, was that of dissatisfaction and rebelliousness towards the American status quo (Lee 367-389).  Ben Lee stated, in regards to Ginsberg’s poems, that, “These poems announce both a new American poetry and a number of overlapping new social movements” (Lee 367-389).  A new form of poetry would need to strike a stark contrast between the new form and the old form.  Poetry prior to “Howl” had not been so rife with sexual imagery; rather it hid beneath innuendo and inference.  Ginsberg displayed his morals and ethical principles, which were in direct opposition to prevalent American sensibilities, in the face of America and were deemed obscene.

This is obscenity with purpose.  Without the bawdiness of the words, Ginsberg would be hiding his homosexuality and his contempt for American conformity.  The Beats did not appear to be content to whimper or hide, they wanted to howl!  To be heard.    The words of Ginsberg resonated with many youths of the period because of this shared sentiment.  Jason Shinder commented, “Indeed, the ‘howl’ Ginsberg brought forth was unruly, powerful enough to upset traditions values – and, further, incite action on its behalf” (Ginsberg, et al 3-10).  People were so affected by these obscenities that social upheaval turmoil began to quake throughout the new generations.

The success of “Howl” appears to be interlaced with its use of vulgarity, as defined above.  The language of the youth was being used to speak to the masses.  The introduction of a new paradigm through “scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may” (Belasco, and Johnson 1318-1327).  Mark Doty reminisced about his search for an author, or character, in literature that shared his desires in life and, for the first time, found a kindred spirit in Ginsberg.  The vulgarity in the poem represented Doty’s life in real terms, in a language understandable and unapologetic about whom he was.  Many gays and lesbians related to the story, the imagery, and the dissatisfaction of their place in society in the lines of “Howl” (Ginsberg, et al 3-10).

“Howl” may have shattered America’s denial of queer sexuality.  Balls and cocks and ass fucking and vomit were undeniably present in our American world after its publication.  The printed pages would no longer allow our country the ability to deny what the common people already knew; we are diverse in our desires.  Whether those desires be same sex flesh or drug experimentation, our country is not the white picket fence, suburban dream that society wanted us to believe.  America is full of these “wretched” souls who love jazz, marijuana, sex (with whomever), and complete personal freedom.  Homogeny was not the only “homo” based word to be accepted into the country’s vulgar vernacular.

Within the lines of indignation are autobiographical notes, or tones, that parade the ideals of Ginsberg (Lee 367-389).  Like “On the Road,” “Howl” put forth Allen’s lifestyle, and that of some of his colleagues, on display.  Neal Cassidy, who is mentioned in line 48 as whoring through Colorado, is presented as a beautiful youth lying with many strange women in various places.  So, not only was exuberant and unapologetic homosexuality being condoned, but wild heterosexuality as well.  When we consider the attitudes of se in America, before the sexual revolution, the notion of “free love” was highly obscene.  In the passage concerning Cassidy, “cocksman” and “whoring” are as foul as the language gets.  However, it is not necessarily the words that are used that displays the obscenity, it’s the advocacy for the lifestyle that is in direct opposition to the status quo that incites the rage of the thought police.

The F.C.C. has had an interesting relationship with Ginsberg and “Howl”.  The F.C.C. has occasionally silenced “Howl” (Ginsberg, et al 3-10) for its obscenities and crass language.  Shortly after its publication in 1957, “Howl” was being confiscated by U.S. Customs officials and was tried for its obscenity.   The American Civil Liberties Union, as well as several literary experts, testified to the merit of the work as a whole.  The courts ruled in the favor of Ginsberg citing that the work had “redeeming social importance” (Cohen 3).

Despite the court’s ruling, threats and fears of lawsuits regarding performances or reading of “Howl” still persist.  As recently as 1988, thirty-two years after its conception, the Pacific Radio Network declined to air Ginsberg performing his work in light of rulings by the F.C.C concerning indecent language .Rather than risk litigation, the radio stations aired an interview with the author called “Why He Can’t Broadcast ‘Howl’” (Yarrow 22).

The fear of legal action, as well as the money it would cost to fight said legal action, effectively censored the poet.  This very tactic used by the F.C.C. was used again in 2006.  After several fines levied against CBS and Fox for Super Bowl breast exposure and curse words, Ginsberg was economically silenced.  The radio stations could not risk the hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties that could be accrued by airing this work of social importance (Cohen 3).

The fight against this censorship is also a testament to the importance of the obscenities used in “Howl”.  This poem is a champion for our first amendment rights for freedom of speech.  Without the bold, lascivious language, the poem would never have risen to prominence.  The confrontation of Ginsberg’s words does not allow any person to hide from his challenge.  “Howl” is instantly questioning our sensibilities as well as asserting its right to exist.  This assertion gave many people from the alternative counterculture their right to exist.

The censure of Ginsberg is effectively a censure of a large section of an authentic American experience.  The sensationalism of the obscenities in “Howl” keeps the poem relevant by constantly questioning the status quo.  In modern American, with all of our apparent acceptance and tolerance of alternative lifestyles and personal choice, we still find that our sensibilities are not quite at ease with the bohemian leftist ideals advocated by Ginsberg and his ilk.  This fact dictates that “Howl” will continue to be relevant as long as our social constructs fight against it.  After all, isn’t the fight against these norms the reason Ginsberg felt the need to affirm his experiences and beliefs?  Until the American person, poet or patriot can authentically express his or herself, “Howl”, and its obscenities, will be needed to fight for our rights.

Works Cited

Belasco, Susan, and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature. 1. 2. New York, NY: Bedford/st Martins, 2008. 1318-1327. Print.

Cohen, Patricia. “‘Howl’ In an Era That Fears Indecency.” New York Times 04 Oct. 2007: 3. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 May 2010.

Ginsberg, Allen, et al. “From “The Poem That Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later.” American Poetry Review 35.2 (2006): 3-10. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 May 2010.

Lee, Ben. “Howl” and Other Poems :Is There Old Left in These New Beats?.” American Literature 76.2 (2004): 367-389. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 May 2010.

“obscene.” Def. 2c.Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online.

10 May 2010 < http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/obscene>

“vulgar.” Def. 1a and 3a.Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online.

10 May 2010 < http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulgar>

Yarrow, Andrew L.. “Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ In a New Controversy.” New York Times 06 Jan. 1988: 22. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 12 May 2010.

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