Wednesday, April 20, 2011

20 April 1957 “HOWL and Obscenity”

ginsberg On the 12th of this month, 1957, Allan Ginsberg’s poem HOWL (which had been written in 1955 but published in England) was seized by customs officials on the grounds of obscenity. One has almost to chuckle at such as this when one compares today’s world and the word obscenity.
It has become such a part of American culture and therefore world culture via advertising, that the thought of words in a poem being obscene can seem almost alien. Yet, with today’s youth, the fear of their reading anything unsavory is increased 10 fold with easy access to the world via their phones which are mini computers.
Today obscenity in the form of words seems hardly a problem. The image is the media message de jour. And one wonders if anyone today is even alive enough to take heed of words, being so numb to violence and sexuality.
When I read the first few lines of Howl, it made me ponder:
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,
Today, our ‘hipsters’ are simply actors on the stage of the ever-changing world of consumerism. Those ‘cool kids’ are simply donning the latest version of ‘subversive’ supplied happily by Urban outfitters or other large retailers designed in the boardrooms of Advertising. The idea once behind the difference in the Beatniks is now simply a fashion statement; visuals with no sustenance. And the passive way in which the youth happily murder and destroy with video games, watch endless TV shows, often with parents, of bodies shot, destroyed in TV style murder all slicked back with the cool detachment of their latest ‘look’ bought on credit cards with digital money that, much like their own convictions, are backed by nothing.
Do we not live closer to the razor’s edge today than ever thought possible in 1957? Today’s ‘angel headed hipsters’ aren’t looking to ancient heavenly connections, they are simply, mindlessly, numbly wandering through their days, heads down and fingers punching away the numbness of the modern world: LOL, ;) while images of death and obscenity are so commonplace visually as to be almost laughable.
Sometimes, in my white gloves and hat, skirt and hose, I feel the rebel. The daring notion of individuality amid a myriad of easy ready to wear ‘attitude’. My costume, nay my uniform, sometimes feels my own armor. I need it  just to deal with the irony and base cold consumer world. This might sound extreme, but sometimes when I have had a good day of really researching and studying the past I see how the future turned out and it gives me a bit of a shudder.
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
The scholars of war seems to really touch base today. Though we are currently in various wars, we seem almost numb to that as well. As if it is something just happening by the government that doesn’t concern us, as long as we have access to shopping and interest rates remain low.
I often think if somehow those happy new middle class, the people who just wanted to make a perfect world for their children could have seen that many of the beatniks probably wanted a freedom from the changes in the world not dissimilar to them. Somehow the culture of division began to separate the masses. When really we all wanted the same thing, freedom. Freedom of words and deeds. Today, however, the pendulum has shifted, and what was obscene is now the mainstream and those who choose the old ‘traditional’ ways are often seen almost subversive. Those returning to the land, growing and tending like many American pioneers are ‘hippies’ or ‘green freaks’. One can dress up hatred in any form of clothing but it always boils down to one thing: Control. Someone who has something wants to make sure no one else gets it.
I can’t help but think of our current president Eisenhower’s warning given at the end of his second term (in 1961) against the military industrial complex. We were somehow divided to think those who became the ‘hippies’ and those who thought they were ‘red blooded Americans’ were different. Eisenhower, an Army General who knew war and how to govern, was the epitome of this decade and his message was no different than the feelings of many Beatniks. “Be on guard, pay attention, don’t let ease and subterfuge take over our senses and make us forget what it is to be Americans”.
In 1961, Eisenhower became the first U.S. president to be constitutionally prevented from running for re-election to the office, having served the maximum two terms allowed by the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment was ratified in 1951, during Harry S. Truman's term, but it stipulated that Truman would not be affected by the amendment. Eisenhower would easily have been re-elected. And I wonder, were his ideals against the growing power of the corporate world of America made our land a different place today?
I will close with his words:


  1. I think you mean that the poet is Allen Ginsberg. I went to a poetry reading of his when he was an old man, and he wore a suit (most of audience pulled out their tie-dyed apparel) and played the harmonium.

  2. oops! I meant Allan, silly me. I changed it. No comments today. I can never guess what posts will hit a chord with people and some people simply could care less. But, as this was an historical fact from this month, I thought it important to mention and it does begin to show the change coming as the 60's arrive. And the change was not only the social youth change, but really a political/ corporate power change. As I said, Eisnhower really felt that those who had not actually served in the military could not understand the presidency (We have not had an actual serving military president in years). He was also very scared and rather annoyed at the changed in the U.S. government and military regime as the post war years were going on. Too bad they suddenly decided he couldn't serve another term, things might have been a bit different.

  3. I'm here, Donna! Just a busy day and couldn't post a well thought comment in the carpool line. But this post DID make me think.

    It's scary how desensitized we are as a culture. Tonight I caught a segment on the news about how a non for profit organization bought an old city bus for a dollar and is renovating it to be a mobile produce market. They're going to bring fresh fruits and vegetables into the "food deserts" in the inner city and charge reasonable prices. It's amazing that corporate America has taken over these poor neighborhoods to such a degree that real food is no longer available. Fast food is the norm. Fresh produce is a basic human nutritional requirement. Why is the almighty buck allowed to override this???


  4. I tried to comment but it went away. And it's AllEn.

  5. I'm here too! I always stop into read, but don't always have time to comment!

    Have a good day!

    Mary Ellen
    The Working Home Keeper

  6. I agree that modern companies seem to have co-opted rebellion as a marketing tool. I've always been fascinated by the beatniks. They were unique in that they rejected consumerism. Now, surrounded by advertising, people are getting the message that they need to buy things to demonstrate their uniqueness.


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