It happened to me in my final year as an English undergrad, it probably happened a few more times after I graduated, not just at my uni, but at a range of other ones too. The man who gave us Howl ( I especially like the version that James Franco narrates) was unceremoniously thrown out of our classrooms, his poems on crumbled balls of paper and his name stricken from our textbooks.
Most recently, perhaps we can call it the long running Ginsgate or the anti-Ginsberg brigade or any other clever names someone out there can think of, raised its head at the South Windsor High School in Connecticut.The culprit: Please Master . The unnamed teacher in question has been put on paid leave because the parents “were not amused” by their children being exposed to material that describes gay sex. My final year at undergrad went in a different direction: it was Howl that was given the sack. We were allowed to read Simone de Beauvoir and Julia Kristeva, but Allen Ginsberg always got the boot. Often, (more often than I know perhaps) Ginsberg is treated like the Collective Soul of grunge and alternative rock, or the Turkey of the EU. Perhaps Ginsberg is like the dandelion, some people love it and love instagram-ing photos of themselves blowing dandelions into the coincidentally perfect wind; other people hate ’em and whack ’em for the weeds they think they are.
Whatever Ginsberg may be, he’s one of my personal heroes and that’s even before the movie came out. I ask myself why he’s constantly banned in schools and universities across the world. Sappho managed to find lesbians on the aptly named Greek island of Lesbos; I read Adrienne Rich as an undergrad and she was also included as material for tests; we read extracts from Gloria Anzaldua and even W.H. Auden, Francis Bacon- better known for his essays than his adventures on street corners lets say. I learned and loved poetry of all sorts and Ginsberg tops that list. I wish I could write half as he did. But that’s a different story tucked away for a different time.
So why can’t parents and schools come to terms with Ginsberg? Is it because he is so blatantly open about his lifestyle and the LGBT movements and the Beat Generation of the ’50s? Well that’s not all he wrote about is it; does the name Moloch ring a bell? Ginsberg was not just a gay poet or a Beatnik- his poems travelled through the streets of capitalism and communism. Who runs America?, he wrote. The terms in which I think of Reality, he wrote. We Rise on Sunbeams and Fall in the Night, he wrote.
In Howl, he wrote:
who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism,
In Who Runs America, he wrote:
Oil millions of cars speeding the cracked plains
Oil from Texas, Bahrein, Venezuela Mexico
Oil that turns General Motors
revs up Ford
lights up General Electric, oil that crackles
thru International Business Machine computers,
charges dynamos for ITT
sparks Western Electric
runs thru Amer Telephone & Telegraph wires
Oil that flows thru Exxon New Jersey hoses,
rings in Mobil gas tank cranks, rumbles
shoots thru Texaco pipelines
blackens ocean from broken Gulf tankers
spills onto Santa Barbara beaches from
Standard of California derricks offshore.
Please Master is certainly more vivid, obvious and stark and in your face about Ginsberg’s lifestyle and/or affairs. Perhaps I’m going against myself but not quoting the poem here, and as cliched as this may sound, Ginsberg was more than just a gay poet. He played the role of the puppeteer and wove in and out of social movements and socio-political change; he gave those of us who were born much, much after the 50s a window into prejudices that have unfortunately crept into today’s political and social systems as well. Pigeonholing Ginsberg as a ‘gay poet’ is much like saying Brian Cox is a TV presenter. Or like saying that the assignation of archduke Franz Ferdinand was the sole cause of Word War I . Or like saying that Nigel Farage is just a former banker (and I’ve got another word to describe him that does rhyme with ‘banker’). You get the idea.
Second point- why do lesbian poets seem (for lack of a better word, and I’m definitely going to have a good think about this one) less threatening to academicians and classrooms alike? Is that like the same way that lesbians relationships are considered normal, even ‘attractive’ on a much higher level than gay relationships? A lesbian woman is (I hate using the word ‘hot’, so I won’t) attractive to both genders, but gay men aren’t on the same level. Something must be wrong with them, they’re not man enough, they’re not as good as straight men; those are the right answers aren’t they? Is that why lesbian poetry is alright, but gay poetry is unnatural and unintelligible. Madam Butterfly might also fall into this category perhaps. I know the next person I’m going to mention was not a poet and is another personal hero of mine, but Alan Turing was also a victim of this phenomenon that is narrower than the Pope’s views on birth control. Turing was subjected to chemical castration, and I agree with Harvey Weinstein and Benedict Cumberbatch that Turing should be honoured posthomously, not pardoned. That’s just one case; another personal hero of mine, Oscar Wilde, wasn’t spared either. He was just slightly better off than Ginsberg, but the picture of Dorian Gray remains a controversy to this day.
At the end of it all, this is just an angry rant by someone who hopes that teachers will be more liberal, governments and policies more inclusive, and people less judgmental. Yes, some might consider me a barefoot-running-in-the-grass and handing out dandelions to soldiers and holding candles for victims of patriots, but there is one question that remains standing at the end of the day.
Why is gay poetry not subjected to the same parameters as its lesbian counterpart? Why aren’t gay and lesbian poets and people not held to the same standards?
Why is Allen Ginsberg being thrown out of classrooms all over the world?
All images courtesy of Google.