Jul 16, 2007

Rules and the Unruled

by Rene Allen

Allan Ginsberg died 10 years ago. He first published “Howl” in 1956, became famous and was able to live a profitable life as a poet, which is not easy to do. My son who is an electrical engineer took a writing class at Pima Community College. “Everyone was talking about ‘Howl,’ he said. “Who was Allan Ginsberg?”

“He was one of the Beat Poets,” I said. “A wild man. Drugs and other things. And his poetry was wild, too.”

The poem currently is on my desk. That “Howl” is resurfacing is not, I suppose, surprising given the great cultural confusion currently in our country. My impression is that the poem is both graphic and pornographic though it was considered well-made by the famous American poet, William Carlos Williams, who was Ginsberg’s mentor. It is considered to be a brilliant literary work. I have yet to read “Howl” in its entirety and it has been on the shelf with other collections of poetry for over a decade. I too, learned about it in a writing class.

I have been asked to talk at our empty nesters family home evening tonight about literature, refinement and spirituality. The premise for this evening’s discussion is that refinement and spirituality have positive influence on one another, in a kind of upward (as in toward heaven) spiral. The corollary is that as your spirituality increases, you want more of those things that that are “virtuous, of good report and praise-worthy.”

In literature and writing classes, students are taught to critique the application of the tools of the craft of writing and literature: how well does the author use style, form, imagery, dialog, etc., to tell his or her story. Content is considered hands-off. Thou shalt not censor! From the back cover of “Howl and Other Poems,” I learned that this little book was seized by U.S. Customs in 1956, and became the subject of a First Amendment Rights trial. The court was finally convinced by a string of experts, poets and professors, that it was not obscene.

How do you do that, convince a court something is not obscene when the eye and ear and heart tell you it is?

Tonight, I am going to read a few lines from “Howl.” I am going to say it symbolizes that movement in our country that is without restraint, that pushes the notion of individual rights into the gutter of self-indulgence. There is nothing refining about it, regardless the brilliance that created it.

So, perhaps the real question for this evening’s discussion is how to be in the world but not of the world. As a writer, I have access to the minds of my readers. I bring ideas and images. I raise questions and offer solutions. What is my responsibility? Must everything I write be uplifting, moral and refining? Should I remove whatever restraint I have placed on myself as a writer? And does restraint equal self-censorship?

Once, one of my children used a four-letter word in church. Fortunately, he was underneath the bench so it didn’t make it to the acoustical pathways of the chapel. But when we were home, I pulled out a dictionary, the largest one I could find in, about 8 inches thick, and we looked the word up. “Is that what you wanted to say,” I asked him after we read the definition.

“What did you want to say, then?”

“I wanted to say ‘stupid.’”

There are those who would argue free speech permits my child to say whatever he wants in church. I would argue such words detract from the spirit my child was working to cultivate there, one of reverence and worship for his Father in Heaven.

To those who dirty the intent of free speech with their brilliant perversities, I would say you go too far. The blatantly unfiltered work of artists and authors, along the line of Ginsberg, brings a kind of toxicity that does to the spirit what polluted water and air do to the body. Now, I wonder, where are the environmental watchdogs for this kind of pollution?

Tonight, I also will read from the work of one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost. I think I’ll read “Birches.”

. . .I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

Literature and art that are refining are much like those beautiful birches, a way toward heaven.


  1. Oh, how right you are, Rene. I recall hearing a professor saying that 'Playboy Magazine' was good literature, publishing only the best writers. The amazing thing is that I bought it (his statement) until I had time to consider it. You see, I've never read Playboy, so I can't really judge. But neither do I want to read it.

    We seem to be living in a day when people call good evil, and evil good. It pays to be selective.

    Thanks for the Frost quote. 'Birches' is not one of his I have memorized. I think I ought to give it a try.

  2. As the good bard would say, ah there's the rub. I am considered somewhat of a rebel in my small branch since I tend to be more open to "worldly" things than most. I've had members "sell" me on reading books they let their kids read and I think isn't this pronographic to myself. It's a tough line. Sometimes I do the balancing act well, sometimes not so well. But my non member dad said it best, why waste your time with questionable stuff when there is so much good stuff out there, you'll never fit it in. Good advice.

  3. I totally agree with Terry's dad, why bother with stuff that is questionable. When I was traveling back and forth every weekend (3 hours each way) I had a lot of time to listen to books on CD. I chose those books that would not only entertain, but ones that I knew would be "safe" to listen to. It was a very prized 6 hours each weekend. In some ways, I kind of miss it.

    By the way, don't you just love Robert Frost. He was an amazing writer. He took what he knew and then what he questioned and put them together in such a way that we identify with the unknown.


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