Ginsberg Debuts Howl – 10/7/1955

US History |

October 7th, 1955 was a day that changed the face of American Literature, when Allen Ginsberg performed the first reading from his epic poem, Howl, at San Francisco's Six Gallery. The audience was amazed at Ginsberg's masterful use of surreal imagery, and the unflinching way in which he spoke of men getting F'ed in the ass. He even used the actual F word, which I, even six decades later, cannot. 

Allan Ginsberg was born in 1926, to a Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. He would live to become the key voice of a group of writers and poets known as the Beat Generation. Allen embodied various aspects of America's first counterculture, such as having a willingness to experiment with drugs, and an insistence on sexual freedom.

The publication of Howl and the obscenity trial that followed drew national attention, made the beats famous, and kicked off what became known as the West Coast Beat Movement. The group became collectively known as The Beat Generation, thanks mostly to Allen's marketing experience at Columbia University, coupled with the cooperation of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher, poet, and founder of City Lights Publishing. Ferlinghetti was arrested and jailed for selling “pornography,” yet he seemed suspiciously unconcerned about his own arrest.

Meanwhile, hapless Gregory Corso, who had been scheduled to read at the Six Gallery that night, failed to show up and missed what turned out to be America's most monumental literary event. The publication of Howl made Allen Ginsberg a financially successful professional poet who could finally quit that mind-murdering marketing job. Allen lived somewhat more comfortably after that appearance.

Most notable about Allen Ginsberg until then was that he and his partner, Peter Orlovsky, were the first and only openly gay couple in America. Allen was one of a group of beat poets who were friends, and most of whom were at least a little bit gay. Among the friends that Allen Ginsberg made famous by association (and by Allen's bright marketing skills) were Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Neil Cassady, Caroline Cassady, William Borroughs, Herb Huncke, and of course Peter Orlovsky.

Allen was a political activist for the legalization of drugs, sexual freedom, and controversial issues of every type. He joined many unpopular political organizations, which included NAMBLA (the North American Man Boy Love Association). Allen insisted that NAMBLA was a discussion group and not a sex club, and that he had joined the group only in the name of free speech. 

In the pornography trial that ensued over Howl, the poem was deemed not pornographic, because pornography, by legal definition, would have to have no literary merit whatsoever. In the words of Judge Clayton Horne himself, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”

Allen Ginsberg died of liver cancer at the age of 70, perhaps from a tainted needle he had received from a doctor 30 years earlier for a tropical disease. This had given him health issues for the rest of his life.

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