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Howl

 Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," has long been attacked as obscene for its graphic imagery and language. It includes shadowed symbolism, but also direct references to oral and anal sex, homosexuality, and drug use. However, according to Roth v. the United States (1957), "unless the book is entirely lacking in 'social importance', it cannot be held as 'obscene'." Only works with no redeeming social value may be banned on the grounds of their being obscene; any piece of writing with social value is protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.

 

By this definition, it is impossible to consider "Howl" obscene. Declared by literary experts to be "social criticism... a literary work that hurled ideological accusation after accusation against American society," "Howl" is not obscenity - the vulgar terms Ginsberg uses are intended to convey the meaning of the poem; they give insight to his life and his view of the world. The course language is used to portray the nightmarish world depicted by the poem, and though the author could have used other terms they would not have been as effective. "Howl" is effective in large part because it conveys violent emotions, and its vulgarity elicits an emotional response from the reader; obscenity is used to make a point, and not for its own sake.

 

Twice Ginsberg's book Howl and Other Poems, which contains "Howl", has been confiscated from bookstores with the claim that the book was not suitable for children. However, the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, from which copies of the book were seized, did not carry books for children. "Howl" is certainly not appropriate for children, but no one has ever claimed otherwise. Howl and Other Poems was not being marketed for children, or as a children's book. If all works that contained material deemed inappropriate for children were removed from the shelves, the vast majority of what we consider great literature and film would be eliminated.

 

Though some may find that the language and practices described in "Howl" offend them personally, there is no legal basis on which to ban it as "obscene" given the legal definition of obscenity. As social criticism, the poem has obvious social value; it expresses the author's views of the world, and its vulgarity is meant to provoke an emotional response, not merely to offend and disgust.

 

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