“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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking
in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
across the tops of cities contemplating jazz …”
By Anna Daniels
April is National Poetry Month! As much as we love poetry and poets—particularly the living ones in our midst here at the San Diego Free Press— poetry on the site has been eclipsed by accounts of the daily threats against our democratic institutions.
The reality is that our democratic institutions have been tested throughout our history and there have always been protectors of the liberties enshrined in our Bill of Rights and Constitution. The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is one such prominent voice here in the San Diego region and across the country. Its work on behalf of immigrants and people ensnared in our current criminal justice system is the latest iteration of the ACLU’s long history of advocacy for equal protection under just laws.
Gigi Harney of the Northern California ACLU takes us back in the time machine to 1957:
Sixty years ago, ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Al Bendich defended City Lights Books publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was accused of obscenity for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl.
Over 500 freshly-printed copies of Howl and Other Poems were seized by the government, rather than allowed to exist as thought-provoking literature. The trial against City Lights Books made its way to the California State Superior Court in 1957, where Judge Clayton Horn ruled in favor of Ferlinghetti and the ACLU.
Judge Horn found that the poem was not obscene for referencing sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and instead held “redeeming social importance”.
The trial which charged City Lights Books with printing and selling obscene material was described as “somewhat of a circus” in the papers of Shig Murao, the City Lights clerk who was arrested for selling Ginsberg’s Howl to an undercover agent. His papers provide a lively account of the “circus”.
The trial judge, Clayton W. Horn, taught Sunday school at his church; Ralph McIntosh, the assistant district attorney who represented the state, was an antismut crusader who adopted the curious strategy of repeatedly demanding that defense witnesses explain the precise meaning of Howl.
“Do you understand,” he railed, “what ‘angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night’ means?”
While Shig was dismissed from the case because prosecutors couldn’t prove that he had actually read the book, it was clear that some of the “angelheaded hipsters” who packed the trial hearings had.
‘The judge’s opinion was hailed with applause and cheers from a packed audience that offered the most fantastic collection of beards, turtlenecked shirts and Italian hairdos ever to grace the grimy precincts of the Hall of Justice,’ reported the San Francisco Chronicle.
This landmark decision cleared the way for the American publication, distribution and sales of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” while also establishing the San Francisco Beat movement.
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind! Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Long live poetry. Long live the ACLU.