In what ways is the poem "Howl" considered to be obscene?

Expert Answers
lfawley eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When Ginsberg first published this poem and when it had its first readings, it caused quite a stir and led to one of several "obscenity" trials that later were used to help define the difference between art and obscenity. Many of the beat poets and writers faced banning and even litigation over the potentially obscene nature of their art. This poem, in particular, contains a number of examples of imagery that could be considered obscene.

Speaking of the "best minds" of his generation:

who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night

with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls

He goes on to refer to them as individual:

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,

who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,

But what perhaps bothered conservatives the most was that he linked sex to religion:

who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love,

who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may,

who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword,

Ginsberg's own open homosexuality was already a source of concern - in fact, when he was finally able to access his FBI and CIA files under the freedom of information act, he was shocked and amused to find that his sexual orientation was considered dangerous to America! Therefore, it is not at all surprising that the critics would take issue with mention of homosexual sex and angels in the same passage (more so reference to homosexual angels!)

But Ginsberg did not just refer to homosexual sex. He brought the heterpsexuals into the picture just as vividly:

who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset, and were red eyed in the morning but were prepared to sweeten the snatch of the sunrise, flashing buttocks under barns and naked in the lake

A look at the poem in depth reveals a number of passages that can be viewd as obscene, but can also be viewed through the critical lens of a raw response to government repression, the situation that was life in the fifties and a brilliant prelude to the ant-war generation that followed. Ginsberg's career spanned all the way to the 1980s and included a wealth of protest writing (including a song on the Clash's album Combat Rock and a guide for how to make a peaceful march/spectacle, and the famous Pentagon Exorcism (No taxation without representation).

He was raw, outspoken, and by some accounts this could be seen as obscenity, but the end result was that the obscenity charges against him in the 1950s were dropped, and sales of the poem excelled. So, in the end, freedom of speech was protected, but the question of what is or is not obscene remains and can only be defined by the subjective eye of the reader!


References (non electronic)

Miles, B. (1989) Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster

literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The justification of a text, or for that matter anything, of being obscene is objective. The definition of obscene, according to, is offensive to morality or decency; disgusting; or repulsive. Therefore, what one considers obscene is very different than what another considers obscene.

I, for one, do not consider the poem obscene given I do uphold the right for an author to write what their hearts lead them to write. But, that being said, I could see where some could consider certain aspects of the poem obscene.

1. Alan Ginsberg admits to there being "obscene odes on the window of the skull". Here, he finds something obscene, but does not describe it to allow the reader the right to picture what the ode would say based upon their own interpretation of what is obscene.

2. "Purgatoried their torsos night after night"- Someone who had strong religious beliefs may find this line obscene given its sacrilegious meaning.

3. "Alcohol and cock and endless balls" and ""- Some readers may find this language pornographic and, therefore, obscene.

4. "Who burned cigarette holes in their arms"- This could offend some who believe that the body is a temple and, therefore, should not mark themselves.

5. The use of the word saintly when referring to motorcyclists performing sodomy- Again, those who follow religion closely would be offended by this line.

Ginsberg, obviously, did not forget to establish a "relationship" with anyone in this poem. For some, it could seem that he is openly trying to offend. For others, they could see this poem being a blatant spouting of truths.

Depending on what stand you take, would justify your decision to consider the poem obscene or not.

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question