Lawrence Ferlinghetti Discusses the Publication of "Howl:" ACLU Banned Books Week 2001

Document Date: February 27, 2002

Lawrence Ferlinghetti Discusses the Publication of “Howl:”
ACLU Banned Books Week 2001

The legendary Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti had the foresight to contact the ACLU before publishing Ginsberg’s poem Howl, anticipating the possibility it would be censored. Sure enough, in 1957, U.S. Customs officials seized the books, stating, “You wouldn’t want your children to come across it.”

Photo by Rick Rocamora/ACLU News

Click to Hear poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti discuss the publication and ensuing obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s “”Howl and Other Poems,”” as part of the ACLU Banned Books Week audio

Ferlinghetti wrote at the time, “It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene. The great obscene wasters of Howl are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms.”

ACLU attorney Al Bendich defended Ferlinghetti and his publishing company, City Lights Books, at the closely watched trial. San Francisco Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn ruled in this landmark case that the poem could not be suppressed as obscene by local authorities.

In 1997, Ferlinghetti joined the lawsuit ACLU v. Reno because, in his words, “This new law to censor the Internet would have a chilling effect on the First Amendment. It’s upsetting and it’s also un-American. We are still publishers of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl. Howl was judged not obscene in a landmark trial, but we fear that the book could now be at risk again, more than forty years later.”

Born in 1919 in New York, Ferlinghetti earned a doctoral degree in poetry at the Sorbonne in Paris and served in the U.S. military. He was sent to Nagasaki only six weeks after the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb that destroyed the city. In 1951 Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco, where he founded City Lights bookstore. Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco’s first Poet Laureate in 1998. He is the author of A Coney Island of the Mind and more than two dozen books of poetry and prose. He has a regular column, “Poetry as News,” in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.

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