When Allen Ginsberg first presented his poem "Howl" at an October 1955 reading in San Francisco, Beat poet Michael McClure said that "a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America."
Ginsberg's poem—112 lines describing drug use, homosexuality, materialism, shifting political tectonics, and rebellion against conformity—caught the attention of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore published Howl and Other Poems in 1956, quickly attracting both celebration and controversy.
On March 25, 1957, the collector of customs at the port of San Francisco seized 520 copies of Howl and Other Poems that had been shipped from a printer in England, accusing the title poem of obscenity. Ferlinghetti began printing Howl and Other Poems domestically to avoid scuffles with Customs. Then two undercover cops bought a copy from City Lights manager Shig Murao. Murao was arrested, and the San Francisco Police Department issued a warrant for Ferlinghetti.
Ferlinghetti was charged with distributing obscene materials. A landmark free speech battle ensued that year in People of the State of California v. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The prosecution was tasked with proving that Howl and Other Poems was obscene and "that the defendants wilfully and lewdly committed the crime alleged."
"Unless the book is entirely lacking in 'social importance,'" wrote Judge Clayton W. Horn, "it cannot be held obscene." Based on the testimony of literary experts and their assessment that Howl and Other Poems "had literary merit," Horn determined that it "does have some redeeming social importance." It was thus protected by the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the California Constitution.
"The best method of censorship," Horn wrote, "is by the people as self-guardians of public opinion and not by government."
Horn noted the difficulty of legislating obscenity when attitudes vary so greatly depending on "the locale, the time, the mind of the community and the prevailing mores." Horn also held that Ginsberg was justified in believing "that his portrayal required" its profane vocabulary: "Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism?"
Miller v. California would eventually modify the established definition of obscenity to material lacking "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" in 1973, opening the door to crackdowns on many varieties of lewd and vulgar media. Despite the win for Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, social perceptions and legal definitions of obscenity are wont to shift—and government prosecution along with them.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Howl and Other Poems".