On this day in 1957, United States Customs authorities confiscated 520 print copies of Howl, a poem by American writer Allen Ginsberg. Howl – a groundbreaking poem written in “breath-length” form, a new style pioneered by Ginsberg to enable a more natural transmission of ideas to the page – addressed taboo topics like homosexuality, mental illness and the inherent inequality of 1950s America. Published by City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, the poem fell into the hands of State authorities. The ensuing trial saw City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti face charges of distributing obscene, pornographic material; backed by a panel of literary experts and a defence from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were absolved in June of 1957.
Inspired by the works of Jack Kerouac and William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg dedicated Howl to a friend who underwent shock treatment at a California mental hospital. A part of the Beat Generation, Ginsberg and his fellow writers rejected traditional narrative styles and wrote about subject matter not addressed in mainstream sources. The incredibly repressive culture of America in the post-WWII era – which prized conformity and encouraged repression of “undesirable” character traits – undoubtedly pushed the Beat Generation to pursue ever more radical and interesting projects. By the mid-1960s, many of Ginsberg’s counterparts became associated with other counter-culture movements. Despite the challenges they faced, the Beat generation played a unique role in shaping the counter-culture movements of the 1960s and forming a new tradition of American socio-political criticism.
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,
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…Opening lines of Howl by Allen Ginsberg