It should be of little surprise that Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” was at the heart of a debate about what is and isn’t acceptable to be taught to high school students. After all, the poem was launched into the public consciousness by an obscenity trial soon after its publication more than sixty years ago and has generated criticism from rather uptight people ever since.
Last week, it was again in the news as a teenager and her father decided to seek legal action after the girl was forced to read the poem in class. What should have been a matter of minor debate between parents and teachers has now spilled into the international press, with predictably depressing results. The matter has been taken up by an anti-LGBT law firm and pounced upon by the British tabloids, among other disreputable publications.
(I won’t do them the favour of linking here, but you can find all these stories on Google News by searching for “Allen Ginsberg”. Just remember to install an ad blocker first.)
The furore began when a class of high school students were asked to study “Howl,” a poem that contains lines such as “fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists”, “a vision of ultimate cunt and come”, and “cock and endless balls”. The matter was soon transformed from a student’s complaint into a legal issue, and that is where things began to turn absurd.
The family’s lawyer, Jeremy Dys of the right-wing First Liberty Institute, drew the bizarre conclusion that teaching Allen Ginsberg’s poem was “unconstitutional” in “the age of Harvey Weinstein.” It’s hard to see how these things could be related, but then again it’s not clear whether he or the parents had ever even read “Howl.” Or maybe they started to read it and just gave up: “I mean the very first four lines, I’m like – ‘No. This is crazy,’” the girl’s father is reported to have said.
Yeah. In fact, the whole situation is like crazy.
Lewd controversy has always proven tantalising to tabloid newspapers and other sensationalist “news” outlets. Trying to research this story was difficult. I could hardly find any information in between the crude advertisements and clickbait headlines, and when I did, the typos and bad grammar made it like deciphering ancient limericks on a grimy bathroom wall.
The lawyer’s letter to the school, along with Fox 8, Fox 31, the Daily Mail, Metro, and NY Daily News, all referred to the poet in question as “Allen Ginsburg.” Naturally, none of them seemed particularly familiar with Mr. Ginsburg’s (sic) life or work, or indeed the significance of his poetry. They did, however, manage to lift words and phrases from the relevant Wikipedia pages, so at least journalism’s not totally dead.
The school has since apologised to the family but defended the inclusion of “Howl” on the curriculum, stating that it will continue to be taught in future. Of course, the British tabloid Metro (the country’s most widely-circulated newspaper) chose to report the opposite, claiming “the poem has now been removed from its curriculum.” Wishful thinking, perhaps, but another example of brilliantly half-hearted tabloid journalism. Fox 31, referring to events from “the 1950’s,” (sic) highlighted the obscenity trial brought against Ginsburg’s (sic) publishers, in which “the judge ruled that it was could stay on bookshelves.” (sic) Of course, one must wonder how many people read beyond the headline that already informed them that the poem was “vulgar.”
Having examined the evidence, it does seem as though the teacher was unwise to use “Howl” in his classroom, not because it is inappropriate for 16-year-olds, but because the teacher himself seems to lack a real appreciation or understanding of the poem. One of the claims made in the lawyer’s letter is that the teacher asked the students to fill in the missing expletives on a censored version of the poem, and this seems rather pointless. Perhaps he just wanted to shock his class. When asked about the poet, the teacher had little to say other than that Ginsberg was a “narcissist.” He also appeared to enjoy forcing students to listen to songs about teenagers being coerced into sexual situations against their will, so perhaps the parents’ worries were not as groundless as the media coverage suggests.
Whether Ginsberg’s poem is worthy of inclusion on high school syllabi is not the issue here. I personally think it reasonable, but I can respect why some people think it might be better taught in university. I do, however, take issue with the idiotic reporting of numerous media outlets who, in their quest for clicks, have done a staggeringly bad job of covering this issue, dragging the misspelled name of a great poet through the mud rather than seriously investigating the claims of a lawyer working for a rather notorious right-wing firm. Still, I reserve judgment on the teacher because the lawyer’s evidence seems dubious, although the claims (beyond just using a classic poem in the classroom) are worrying.
Even though most of the news reports name the teacher, student, and parent, I have chosen to omit them. The student and her father have deliberately put themselves in the spotlight over the issue, but the teacher has not. In an earlier article (possibly the only well-written one), privacy concerns were cited and I agree that it is irresponsible to throw names around in such cases.
Related: I wrote about the media’s homophobic coverage of the announcement that Daniel Radcliffe would play Allen Ginsberg 8 years ago.