Debate over which poetic works should be permitted to be read in high school English classes is of great concern to school board members, administrators, teachers, parents, and students. Poetry is censored primarily for three reasons: sexual content, spiritual beliefs and practices, and human psychology. Would-be censors claim that teachers select such material not for whatever artistic merit it possesses, but instead for its sensationalism and its ability to cause students to question the values taught by parents.
Challenges to poetry on the basis of its sexual content often center on treatments of premarital or extramarital sex. Censors and would-be censors have objected to poems that portray such acts favorably, or that fail to condemn such acts, or that simply in telling about such acts, focus on issues other than their moral wrongness. Anne Sexton’s “Unknown Girl in the Maternity Ward” is an example. Some poems are banned on the basis of subtle genital-related symbolism as well as for more overt depiction of coition. Poems involving some type of sexual violence—rape, spouse abuse, molestation—are also objectionable to many people, especially since such poems usually cast women as victims. William Butler Yeats’s poem “Leda and the Swan” and Robert Lowell’s “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage” are two such poems.
In other cases, poetry has been banned for descriptions or suggestions of prostitution, incest, or homosexuality. Twentieth century poetry is particularly susceptible to attack on these grounds, as these issues are central to the twentieth century quest for meaning through sexual encounters. T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and Adrienne Rich’s “The Floating Poem,” are among those frequently banned. Each of these poets is a primary figure in a period or school of poetry, so censoring their poems raises questions about a student’s ability to draw intelligent conclusions about entire categories of poetry.
Censorship on the basis of spirituality frequently involves banning poets’ entire canons or excluding whole movements. Censors target as pagan poetry that recalls or relies on Greek or Roman mythology; such poetry does not uphold Christian values. This argument extends to other mythological constructs, including the occultist work of W. B. Yeats and the Transcendental poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Poems by Emerson (a Christian minister) and others have been found especially objectionable by some because of the Eastern ideas upon which they are based.
Yet more ironic is censorship aimed at the poetry of Christian poets who struggle with the precepts of the Christian religion in order to come to terms with issues of personal faith. John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), for example, which states that it seeks “to justify the ways of God to man,” may be denounced as portraying sin and disbelief, because in the poem, Adam and Eve sin and Satan rebels. Although Milton’s book is considered quite conservative by most, the very presence of spiritual doubt and speculation about the mercy of the Christian God is sufficient cause for others to push for its exclusion from high school curricula.
People who resist any questioning of religious faith especially object to many works of the late Victorian and early modern periods. Thomas Hardy (who was educated with an eye to the priesthood) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (an ordained Jesuit priest) are two British poets who express the despair that resulted from a society’s theological underpinning being thrown into doubt by scientific advances. The kind of spiritual agony that Hopkins depicts in his “terrible sonnets,” for example, is anathema to some censors. Those who argue for the inclusion of this sort of poetry in high school curricula claim that the very intensity of Hopkins’ questioning indicates a mature spirituality—one not based on naïve acceptance of what a person has been taught to believe. Hardy, in addition to his open expression of religious doubt, makes fun of Victorian, Christian sexual mores in his poetry. Furthermore, some of the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne, for example, would likely draw criticism at even the most liberal high school.
Similar to the resistance against poetic expression of religious doubt is the apprehension felt regarding an exploration of the human mind. The attitude of many censors is that censorship is necessary for safety; in the case of psychology, censorship has been called for on the argument that exploration of the human mind may lead to the questioning of religious doctrine, or of authority, or of established understanding. Such questioning can in turn lead to a rejection of authority.
Too much contemplation also potentially leads to depression and anxiety, sometimes even to insanity or suicide. Consequently, poetry that examines unhealthy states of mind or some aspect of death is considered detrimental to the well-being of young adults. Sylvia Plath’s poems about suicide and depression, for example, may be censored on the grounds that adolescents may be unduly influenced by such poems.
The ramifications of censorship are manifold for teachers and students. Responsible teachers who attempt to offer their students rich ideas that foster incisive thinking often find censorship becoming, in their lives, something other than an abstract issue. Teachers often complain of being treated as subordinates incapable of sound judgment, and, to the dismay of the many teachers who may wish, for example, to teach an unexpurgated tale or two from The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) or Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric,” there are some other teachers who wish to teach their religious beliefs or their peculiar interpretations of history.
For many students, the classroom is the only forum for careful discussion of serious issues. Since most great poetry concerns itself with fundamental human experience, including sexuality, spirituality, and psychology, to eliminate poetry on such topics means that students are left with art that is not of the highest caliber. This problem impinges on academic performance: Students who have not studied “controversial” (that is, “real”) literature typically do not perform as well on national standardized tests, which are based on great literature, as those students who do. Students who have read only the most inoffensive, unchallenging literature may be expected to have vocabulary that is underdeveloped and to have reasoning skills that are not as refined as those of students who have been grappling with complex psychological abstractions and artistic creations. Furthermore, students who have not studied the purportedly controversial poetry find college poetry courses formidable simply because such courses are much more complex than what the students studied in high school.
Editor Anna S. Ochoa’s The National Education Association’s Academic Freedom to Teach and to Learn: Every Teacher’s Issue (Washington, D.C.: NEA Professional Library, 1990) provides lucid essays on topics including “The Significance of and Rationale for Academic Freedom,” the impact of censorship on teachers’ professionalism, and a concise summary of litigation involving censorship. Joseph Bryson and Elizabeth Detty’s Legal Aspects of Censorship of Public School Library and Instructional Materials (Charlottesville, Va.: Michie, 1982) provides a more basic overview of censorship in the public schools. For an earlier perspective on this issue, John Frank and Robert Hogan’s Obscenity, the Law, and the English Teacher (Champaign, Ill.: National Council of Teachers of English, 1966) cites various people’s responses to particular works. Arthur F. Ide’s Evangelical Terrorism (Irving, Tex.: Scholars Books, 1986) focuses on censorship by Christian Fundamentalists, including Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.