[Lawrence Ferlinghetti standing outside his "Banned Books" display at City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, in the early 1950's]
Here's word from someone not unfamiliar with defending Allen Ginsberg and free speech issues - Lawrence Ferlinghetti
"As the original publisher of Allen Ginsberg's poetry, City Lights Books fully supports David Olio as a high school teacher of poetry. We feel he was justified in showing in class a video of Ginsberg reading 'Please Master,' since students absolutely need to know this poem for a full understanding of Ginsberg's oeuvre." (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)
and, with more detail and more depth, the esteemed Harvard poetry professor, Helen Vendler
Although Mr. Olio made use of a poem brought to class by a student, asking students to bring a poem to class does not violate the curriculum: on the contrary, it asks that the student make an investment in his own education.There are persistent efforts at censorship of material read in school, whether contributed by students or on a recommended list. To add Ginsberg's poem to school-censored works of Twain, Faulkner, Whitman, etc. is to deny the freedom to read what one likes, and share what one likes with others, which is the basis of intellectual life. Given what students are already exposed to via TV and film, Ginsberg's poem, which concerns a well-known form of abjection (whether heterosexual or homosexual) reveals nothing new. It may have been imprudent of Mr. Olio to feature it after a student brought it in, but it is certainly not cause for termination. Termination of Mr. Olio would announce that freedom of speech has been abolished in the school system. Mr. Olio might be counseled to remember the sensibilities of adolescents, but fear of giving possible offense should not curtail speech. Mr. Olio was not crying "Fire" in a crowded theater. He has taught in this school system for twenty years; his service to students for two decades ought to outweigh a single class incident, prompted by a student. And Ginsberg is a radically original and worthwhile poet; American students should know his work (but perhaps through a different poem)." (Helen Vendler)
Here's further contextualization from Binghamton Poetry Professor, Joe Weil:
"..I think the teacher was taking a volatile subject and containing it in a classroom where it could be dealt with intelligently. There's room for Aristotle's catharsis - relieving a situation's worst possibilities by allowing some breathing room. Plato's censorship just makes such a poem into forbidden fruit. Better to deal with it. The teacher did the right thing by not faning the flames. And I agree with Ferlinghetti. This poem is essential to understanding both Ginsberg and the tradition of Blake/Whitman from which he comes.
In order to understand Ginsberg as an artist – and he is indeed recognized as one of his country’s most important poets – one has to consider his relationship with Neal Cassady. In “Howl”, undeniably one of the most important poems of the 20th Century, Cassady is famously described as “N.C., secret hero of these poems.” In the late forties, Cassady was the secret hero of another poem – a love letter of sorts – called “Dakar Doldrums.” In 1956, the year “Howl” was published, he wrote “Many Loves,” the first poem in which he explicitly named and described his relationship with Cassady. Towards the end of the poem he refers to Cassady as “my master.” The same year, in explaining and defending “Howl”, Ginsberg used the phrase “my master” to refer to Cezanne – an influence upon his art. Indeed, Ginsberg often used the word “master” to describe his literary and artistic influences throughout his letters. Cassady was not just a one-time lover over whom Ginsberg pined, and about whom he wrote dirty poems, but an important influence (again, a "master" in the classical sense) on his life and art as he was with Jack Kerouac."
More updates - last week's "Howl" in L.A concert - Mandalit Delbarco's report for NPR news (complete with brief sound-bytes - including Jonah Raskin, on the impact of the poem) is well worth catching.
Here's Katya Lopatko's report of the event for the USC Annenberg Media Center.
Meantime, in San Francisco - "The Six Gallery Reading" Redux - "Beat Explosion: The 6 Gallery and the Birth of the Beats", a 60-year-on re-creation/ evocation of the legendary evening of "Howl's" first public performance - "Wonder Dave" performed as Kenneth Rexroth, m.c., Josh Merchant performed as Allen Ginsberg.
"It's not meant to be an exact replica of the night, but to capture the feel of what went on", Wonder Dave had previously explained.
Notwithstanding, that didn't stop at least one audience member from expressing public, and quite explicit, vocal dissent.
Tony Bravo of the San Francisco Chronicle takes up the tale:
[from Oakland, California, poet Josh Merchant]
"I saw", Merchant began the famous opening lines to "Howl", "the dopest minds of my generation destroyed by madness", he colloquially updated.
(and) Merchant continu(ed) substituting subjects like Islam, hipster beards, hip-hop, Hennessey, and gentrification, for Ginsberg's concerns of sixty years prior.
Although he elicited his share of cheers (as did Lisa Evans as Gary Snyder) one audience member stood up during the poet's final bow for reasons of the non-ovation variety. "Rubbish, just rubbish" (declared) the man (who did not want to share his name),
(he) spat at the crowd, before marching up the cellar stairs, stopping, and waving goodbye to the readers with one finger."
Perhaps he was in search of a more participatory, more one-on-one experience. In that case, (in the very same city), he could not have done much better than participating in this - Evan Burton and Zachary McCune's enterprising experiment for National Poetry Month
[Evan Burton and Zachary McCune]
National Poetry Month in America continues - and the phone line is still up. 1-415-763-6968