I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix;
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
Allen Ginsberg read his poem Howl for the first time, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. He was joined that evening by four of his fellow beat compadres: Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen. The event was the brainchild of Wally Hedrick. Hedrick had approached Ginsberg with the idea for a reading at the gallery, but Ginsberg turned him down. He changed his “fucking mind” after completing an early draft of “Howl.”
Kenneth Rexroth introduced the speakers. Neal Cassady and a drunken Jack Kerouac were in the audience along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The following day, Ferlinghetti sent a telegraph to Ginsberg offering to publish the poem. It wasn’t long enough for a book so Ferlinghetti requested additional poems.
There were problems right from the start. Many people considered the poem to be obscene. City Lights Publishers published Howl and Other Poems on Nov. 1, 1956, with the British printer Villiers. Customs officials seized 520 copies of the book on March 25, 1957 upon its arrival in the U.S.
“Imagine being arrested for selling poetry!”
—Shigeyoshi (“Shig”) Murao, Manager of City Lights Book Shop
In June 1957 undercover agents arrested the manager of City Lights Book Shop, Shigeyoshi Murao, for selling the book. Those charges were later dropped in court. Ferlinghetti, who was out of town, turned himself in to the San Francisco Police Department’s Juvenile Bureau after an arrest warrant was issued.
People v. Ferlinghetti, went to trial on August 16th in front of Judge Clayton W. Horn. Judge Horn was a Republican who regularly taught Sunday school, but his judicial philosophy lead him to conclude that: “Unless the book is entirely lacking in ‘social importance’ it cannot be held ‘obscene.”‘ Ferlinghetti’s ACLU lawyers called professors, editors, and book reviewers to testify to the poem’s literary merit.
On Oct. 3, 1957, Horn found Ferlinghetti not guilty. “The authors of the First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance,” Horn wrote in the unpublished opinion.
Howl got the last laugh.