The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

"That's Why It's Poetry"


Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher, died yesterday. Among other things, Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and was prosecuted for obscenity because of that. One particular passage from that trial sticks in my head, as reported in Edward de Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere 335-36 (1992); the colloquy was with an expert witness, literary critic Mark Schorer, who was testifying to the poem having "redeeming social importance":

Prosecutor: I presume you understand the whole thing, is that right?:

Schorer: I hope so. It's not always easy to know that one understands exactly what a contemporary poet is saying….

Prosecutor: Do you understand what "angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" means?

Schorer: Sir, you can't translate poetry into prose. That's why it's poetry.