David Biespiel’s Poetry Wire: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl meets Gay Marriage

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Yesterday was the 56th anniversary of the day that U.S. customs agents seized some 500 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl on the grounds of obscenity. Yesterday and today, the Supreme Court of the United States heard two cases regarding marriage. The first one yesterday, regarding California Proposition 8, addressed the right to marry the person you love. The second one, earlier today, concerning the Defense of Marriage Act, addresses federal recognition of all legal marriages.

What do these these events have in common?

As a lament, “Howl” dissents against the destruction of youth, refutes the violence of industrialism, and grieves over the compromised life of Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met in a psychiatric hospital in the late 1940s. And it is an anthem for for homosexual freedom, rights, and visibility.

Ginsberg’s argument is that American industrial violence and cultural intolerance are a cancer at the root of American life and they cause the corrosion of the beatitude of the imagination. Therefore Howl deplores an American Cold War culture that pushes individuals — pacifists, free spirits, anti-capitalists, women, and yes, gays and lesbians — to its dark fringes. Then that same culture accuses those most vulnerable of being derelicts and outcasts who are undisciplined trash that live beyond the mainstream norms.

But Howl helped to create the world we now live in, a world that is opposed to an intolerant America.

So when Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to decriminalize homosexual acts between consenting adults in private in 1962, it did so in the world Allen Ginsberg”s Howl helped to create.

When the world’s first transgender organization, the National Transsexual Counseling Unit, was established in San Francisco in 1966, it did so in the world Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

When patrons of a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn, retaliated against a police raid on June 27, 1969, sparking three days of riots, they did so in the world Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

When the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its official list of mental disorders in 1973, it did so in the world Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

When 70% of the voters in Dade County, Flordia voted to overturn an ordinance making sexual orientation discrimination illegal in 1977, it was, for a time, a blow to the gay rights movement and a rear-guard attack against the world Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

But a year later, in 1978, when Harvey Milk was sworn in as an openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, he did so in the world that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create — and right down the block from the Six Gallery where Ginsberg first read the poem in public on October 7, 1955.

When delegates to the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York City took a stance supporting gay rights by adding to their plank that “All groups must be protected from discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, language, age, sex or sexual orientation,” they did so in the world Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

When the city of Berkeley, California, became the first American city to offer its employees domestic-partnership benefits in 1984, it did so in the world that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

When Vermont became the first state in the country to legally recognize civil unions between gay or lesbian couples in 2000, it did so in the world that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy laws in the U.S. were unconstitutional, it did so in the world that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

When, in 2009, the Iowa State Supreme Court surprised the hell out of the rest of the country and legalized same-sex marriage, it did so in the world that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

When, in 2011, following the lead of other states including Vermont and New Hampshire, New York passed a law to allow same-sex marriage, becoming the largest state in the country to legalize those rights, it did so in the world that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

And when last year Tammy Baldwin, a seven-term Democratic congresswoman from Wisconsin, became the first openly gay politician elected to the Senate, she did so in the world that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl helped to create.

Howl helped to create a world where sexual freedom is a cultural cornerstone, where same-sex marriage is quickly being renamed just marriage, where marijuana has been decriminalized in a dozen states and more to come, and where the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1995 reaffirmed the rights of pacifists. All the while, capitalism still has millions of detractors.

So, yes, poetry can sometimes change the world. And it could be happening right before our eyes today and tomorrow.


David Biespiel is the author of five collections of poetry: Charming Gardeners, The Book of Men and Women, Wild Civility, Pilgrims & Beggars, and Shattering Air. More from this author →