There’s what I consider an intentionally funny story today about a radio station afraid of reading Howl on the air because it’s afraid it might run afoul of FCC rules governing broadcasting:
Fifty years ago today, a San Francisco Municipal Court judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg’s Beat-era poem “Howl” was not obscene. Yet today, a New York public broadcasting station decided not to air the poem, fearing that the Federal Communications Commission will find it indecent and crush the network with crippling fines.
Free-speech advocates see tremendous irony in how Ginsberg’s epic poem – which lambastes the consumerism and conformism of the 1950s and heralds a budding American counterculture – is, half a century later, chilled by a federal government crackdown on the broadcasting of provocative language.
In the new media landscape, the “Howl” controversy illustrates how indecency standards differ on the Internet and on the public airwaves. Instead of broadcasting the poem on the air today, New York listener-supported radio station WBAI will include a reading of the poem in a special online-only program called “Howl Against Censorship.” It will be posted on www.pacifica.org, the Internet home of the Berkeley-based Pacifica Foundation, because online sites do not fall under the FCC’s purview.
As you can see, the story makes a big point out of the fact that, 50 years ago, the Supreme Court held that it isn’t absence. That’s as may be. The problem, of course, isn’t that the overall work is obscene, it’s that it uses obscenities that are banned from the airwaves, because we are making a last ditch stand to have someplace where our kids won’t have to hear those words. Even the news report notes that standards differ on the internet, where parents can theoretically place blocking software, and public airwaves, where there’s nothing between a kid and whatever garbage may come spewing out of the radio dial.
Anyway, reading this silly story about a tempest in a teapot had me going back to look at Howl. How dirty is it, I asked myself. I can confidently say, after struggling through the first two verses that its dirt is irrelevant. It’s just awful. Its only virtue 50 years ago was it’s shock value. Nowadays, where nothing is too shocking, it has nothing going for it. It simply stands out as a boring, somewhat illiterate screed by a very angry man.