In San Francisco a decade before the Summer of Love, police officers raided the City Lights bookstore and arrested the manager. The authorities missed nabbing the store owner, but he turned himself in soon after. Their crimes? Publishing and selling Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg.
The authorities sought to prohibit the poetry due to its "obscene" references to wild sex, cannabis and psychedelics, and the subsequent trial attracted national headlines. A few months later, the California State Superior Court declared the defendants not guilty, and the publisher had to rush additional print runs to meet the explosive demand. The book's main poem, "Howl," became Ginsberg's most famous work, and he earned his place among the greatest writers of the Beat Generation.
Sixty years after the famed trial, Craft Recordings celebrates the groundbreaking work with a new box set titled Howl and Other Poems. Ginsberg regularly performed public readings of his poems, some of which were recorded and released. The new set features his 1959 collection Howl and Other Poems reissued on translucent red vinyl, in addition to a vintage Ginsberg photo, a poetry book, new linear notes and a reproduction of a 1955 invite to see him read at City Lights.
The set's highlight is obviously "Howl," a three-part poem that rages against society's abusive ways like a call for revolution. Just as "Smells Like Teen Spirit" ended a generation of hair-metal bands, "Howl" instantly made other poets sound antiquated thanks to sexually charged lines like, "[Those who] let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclist, and screamed with joy, who blew and were blown by those human seraphim." As befits the poem's vibe, Ginsberg wrote the second part after a wild peyote trip in which he thought he encountered the Canaanite fire god Moloch from the Book of Leviticus.
The "other poems" from the 1959 recording include an imaginary encounter with Walt Whitman titled "A Supermarket in California," a political conversation with the country titled "America," and a recounting of an experience with Jack Kerouac in "Sunflower Sutra." The set finishes with "Kaddish," a highly regarded poem that Ginsberg wrote about his mother Naomi and her death in 1956: "O mother what have I left out / O mother what have I forgotten / O mother farewell."
Ginsberg ignited an epic battle over free speech with "Howl," but the activist poet also took on issues like the Vietnam War, gay rights and the war on drugs. Ginsberg, who famously wore a "Pot Is Fun" sign at a 1960s cannabis rally, organized the NYC chapter of LeMar (Legalize Marijuana) and wrote the first great cannabis manifesto ("The Great Marijuana Hoax"). He passed away in 1997 but continued to write poetry until the year of his death.