City Lights : Home of Howl

city lights 002-horz

Censorship is an interesting thing. The word 'ass' is nearly always bleeped out on the radio, yet songs like Sisqo's The Thong Song are not only played in their entirety, but also reach #1 on the billboard charts. Today, censorship is less about content being deemed inappropriate for the average listener - and more about a list of 'naughty words' that parents don't want their kids hearing in the mini-van during carpool.

But, let me take you back to a time even before I Want to Hold Your Hand was steaming up radio waves. The year 1957, when Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's epic poem Howl, at his little bookstore called City Lights in San Francisco. He was subsequently tried for publishing obscenities, mainly violating The Miller Test benchmark of "depicting, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct". For example, take this line : "With dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, al-/cohol and cock and endless balls".
Three big things that you aren't allowed to talk about in print in 1957 : (1) drugs (2) cock (3) endless balls. No. no and no.

People were upset (almost understandably). Howl pushed a lot of boundaries, not just with its language but with the depiction of homosexuality and the lifestyle that was starting to emerge in the late 1950's. But, to say that Howl "lacked serious literary or artistic value" (the automatic-out from supreme court obscenity hearings) today seems laughable.

Howl, and many of the books produced by what came to be known as "the beat generation" are important records of the emergence of counter-culture in the modern mediated times we live in. Ginsberg was watching "the best mind of his generation destroyed by madness" and poverty. He wasn't glorifying, or even suggesting, the kind of lifestyle his friends were living - he was documenting it.

One of my favorite things about the beat authors is this constant theme. The narrators rarely talk about themselves or magnify their importance. They tell the stories of their friends, the people who always seem to be driving the plot forward. Jack Kerouac may be the narrator, but he isn't the protagonist of On the Road. His friend Neal Cassady is, thinly veiled as Dean. Only one sentence in the first and second chapters of Howl start with the phrase "I": the first sentance.

I look around at my generation, and at myself, and at the kind of works we produce. I look at the medium we use, blogging, and the way that voice becomes increasingly first person oriented. Allen Ginsberg, and his friends Jack Kerouac, William Borroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are literary heros now, but before that they were just friends.

It's weird to know that this time is my social movement, my 'era', and when the next one comes I won't be considered a part of it. I want to make the most of this, and at times I feel like it is passing me by, creatively. Although I'm poor, I don't enjoy benzedrine binges and I have a semi-furnished (although small and cheap) apartment. I have never called in sick to work a day in my life, much less quit a job to drive across the country, and I spend my time quietly. How will I ever fill a novel of life stories?

I am comforted by this quote by Allen Ginsberg,

"There is no beat generation, just a bunch of guys trying to get published"
Because, if this is what it takes to be part of the movement, I'm not so far off after all. Because I know a lot of those.

* I saw the new movie Howl starring James Franco when it premiered at the opening night of Portland's LGBT film festival. It was thought provoking, and the performances were well studied. Franco did a great job as Ginsberg and so does John Hamm (of Mad Men fame) as his lawyer. Although, there are some less than stellar animation scenes that look, more or less, like this.

You can read the full epic poem of Howl here and watch the movie trailer (which is paced by a typewriter, love!) here

[ (1 + 2) photos from my pentax at City Lights bookstore, where Howl was published (p.s) world's most beautiful bookstore | On the Road quotes 1 | 2 | 3 | book shopping in sartorial style | Dave Eggers on San Francisco]


  1. Beautifully written. I love the beat generation and can't wait to see this film.

  2. sam, i feel so connected with you on this post. Not only was I talking about the movie Howl today (which I am dying to see), but I also never call in sick to work. until today. I did it. and I spent the day doing homework, and actually being kind of sick.. but other fun stuff happened too (mainly thoughts in my brain).

    we really need to get together!


  3. Jenni: the 5th postsecret down this week reminded me of your comment above about sickdays "I was kind of sick today so I left work, but not so sick that it wasn't the best day all month!"


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