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You just don’t get it, man

Published by marco on

The article ”That’s Why It’s Poetry” by Eugene Volokh (Reason) commemorates the recent death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti with a wonderful story, not directly about Ferlinghetti, but about one expert witness’s testimony at his trial for obscenity for having published Howl. It wasn’t so long ago in America that people were being prosecuted for obscenity.

That trial was in 1957. Just over 60 years later and it seems kind of far-fetched to think we may see the like again. The goal is to sanction unsanctioned[1] ideas, to keep them from polluting people’s minds, distracting them from the self-evident and officially accepted truth. Why bother with a trial and its messy rules of evidence—why risk a public and official and potentially ideologically damaging loss—when you can try and pillory heretics on social or the mainstream media or both?

“Among other things, Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and was prosecuted for obscenity because of that. One particular passage from that trial sticks in my head, as reported in Edward de Grazia, Girls Lean Back Everywhere 335-36 (1992); the colloquy was with an expert witness, literary critic Mark Schorer, who was testifying to the poem having “redeeming social importance”:”

Prosecutor: I presume you understand the whole thing, is that right?:

Schorer: I hope so. It’s not always easy to know that one understands exactly what a contemporary poet is saying….

Prosecutor: Do you understand what “angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” means?

Schorer: Sir, you can’t translate poetry into prose. That’s why it’s poetry. (Emphasis added.)”


[1] I thought it would be fun to use the diametrically opposed definitions right next to each other. It was.