Banned Book Club: Howl

Title: Howl

Published: 1955/1956

Author: Allen Ginsberg

Challenge status: In 1957, 520 copies of the work being imported (from London) were seized by customs, and  the poem was the subject of an obscenity trial. City Lights bookstore in San Francisco was publishing/selling the book, and clerk Shig Murao was arrested and jailed after selling a copy to an undercover police officer. City Lights co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher, was also arrested – the work, Murao, and Ferlinghetti were eventually acquitted, after a highly publicized trial. Book #40 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why: References to sex (graphic – both heterosexual & homosexual), and drugs

First line: ”I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,”


I do love me some poetry. I’m not a particularly skilled analyst of the Beats, though. I love how Howl is so clearly “of America” and speaks so clearly from a certain time period. A lot of poetry tends towards the pastoral and I do appreciate the more urban and political elements.

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! – Allen Ginsberg, Howl

The poem consists of three sections, which I would loosely describe as: I) essential destruction, the fall of men and artists, II) purgatory/hell, the blight of capitalism, III) Rockland, madness, revolution & rebirth. It is definitely meant as social commentary, but also manages to weave in some in-crowd references to his fellow Beats, specifically buddies Burroughs and Kerouac.

I’m with you in Rockland where we wake up electrified out of the coma our own souls’ airplanes are roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free – Allen Ginsberg, Howl

Extra treat, check out this archival footage of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti setting up a Howl themed display window after the obscenity charge was lifted.

What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.