In 1997, the last year of his life, poet Allen Ginsberg fretted that the first amendment battles won over his iconic epic Howl, would now face a reversal. Howl had been read on Pacifica radio, and censors now wanted to confine those readings till late night, lest innocent ears be compromised. Backtrack to 1955, the year of the poem's composition: Howl had been the subject of a censorship trial, its language deemed obscene. The midcentury court ruled in Howl's favor, finding the poem's language reflective of redeeming human values, to frame the decision in some legal context. To all who understood the poem's meaning, the court declared a victory for tenderness, and the right to express horror at society's attempts to dehumanize and restrict individual freedom. Now, fast forward to 2015. Ginsberg's fears are coming true in the nightmare news that David Olio, a beloved and much awarded Connecticut teacher, has been fired for reading aloud in an AP English classroom from Ginsberg's poem, "Please Master."
This bit of disturbing current events coincides with the publication of The Essential Ginsberg, edited by Ginsberg biographer Michael Schumacher. The volume includes Howl, of course, and other major poems such as "Kaddish," and "White Shroud," for the poet's mother Naomi, and many favorites like "A Supermarket in California," homage to his predecessor poet Walt Whitman, and "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Ginsberg's On the Road in verse, plus essays, letters and journals. It also includes "Please Master," first printed in the 1968 Fall of America City Lights edition.
Rereading "Please Master" in light of these current events, with its poeticized yet truthful yearnings should affect a compassionate response to human desire, for touch, connection, penetration, and fulfillment. No revulsion here. How bewildering it is to find a poem's truth-telling language threatening when the hypocrisies of government officials are exposed, those who violate young people physically, secretly, while legislating against gay rights. And that's just one example. As Allen Ginsberg would ask, which is the true obscenity?
This publication of The Essential Ginsberg, as special and meaningful as it is, might have passed unnoticed for the larger public. The book should provide a moment to rejoice and celebrate Ginsberg's achievement anew, and challenge a dumb retrograde action on the part of a school system.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.