Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ sparks controversy in Steamboat schools
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Sixty-two years after the publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s book, “Howl and Other Poems,” went to court over charges of obscenity, similar charges were leveled against a Steamboat Springs High School literature teacher and the school district as a whole.
“From its inception, it was a controversial piece of material,” acknowledged Jay Hamric, director of teaching and learning for the Steamboat Springs School District.
Hamric led the committee review after a parent lodged an official complaint about the 3,000-word poem, which contains lewd language and graphic sexual references.
When a controversial issue or material is brought to school’s attention, Hamric said the district’s policy puts into motion a process that begins with a group of stakeholders, which includes students, parents and other community members. The group then looks at the material and makes a determination on its educational value.
Typically, when a teacher plans to introduce controversial material, they first submit it to the principal for approval, Harmic said. He was unable to confirm whether this happened in the case of “Howl.”
He also noted that the notion of “controversial” is inherently subjective and comes with a bit of gray area.
Hamric said when material is deemed controversial enough, students and parents are often given the option to opt out or take on an alternative assignment.
For policy and privacy reasons, Hamric did not provide the identity of the teacher nor the parent. The parent did not come forward publicly with their complaint, other than speaking at a Parent Information Committee, or PIC, meeting.
However, at a Sept. 9 school board meeting, another parent, Ken Mauldin, took up the cause and expressed his outrage to the Steamboat Springs School Board.
“How is it possible that a teacher in this district can introduce into a classroom a reference to people, quote, ‘who let themselves be f*** in the a** by saintly motorcyclists and scream with joy’ and still be in a classroom today?” Mauldin asked the school board.
It was this line in particular, that in 1957, prompted U.S. Customs officials to seize more than 500 copies of the book, which had been imported from London.
Mauldin cited two other lines from the poem to further illustrate his point.
“It leads a reasonable person to ask, ‘Who’s in charge?” Mauldin questioned the board.
He then stated it should be the superintendent, but if the superintendent fails to act, it should fall on the school board. And if the school board fails, Mauldin said, it falls to the parents.
If the district and board does not “take charge,” Mauldin said, he would be taking the issue to “every media outlet you can imagine, from the Steamboat Pilot (& Today) to CNN.”
Mauldin did not directly approach Steamboat Pilot & Today for this story, but he did gain public traction in an Oct. 12 Facebook post, in which Mauldin said his “friend’s 16-year-old daughter” was instructed to fill in the blank with lines from the poem containing the most offensive language.
Hamric was unable to confirm the exact assignment given to students but did say, to the best of his knowledge, the poem was read aloud.
Historical context is important in discussing this particular piece of literature, Hamric said. Its place in literary history is best known because of the obscene language but also as a loud dissent from the Beat Generation of the 1950s.
“It was an anguished protest, literally a howl, against the era’s soul-crushing conformism and a hymn to the holiness of everything about the human body and mind, splashed in verse that breaks free from standard meter but speaks instead in the long lines and jangling rhythm of natural breath and conversation,” said journalist Fred Kaplan.
More than six decades ago in 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publisher and owner of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, was arrested and charged with “willfully and lewdly printing, publishing and selling obscene writings.” The book store manager was arrested as well.
During the People vs. Ferlinghetti trial, Ferlinghetti’s defense team called nine expert witnesses, including professors, editors and book reviewers, who testified to the book’s contribution to society and literature, calling it a “prophetic work.”
The three witnesses for the prosecution included an English professor, a teacher and a police officer.
On Oct. 3, 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn found Ferlinghetti not guilty.
Horn ruled that “Howl and Other Poems” was not obscene but contained “redeeming social importance” and was therefore protected by the First Amendment.
In an unpublished opinion, Horn wrote, “The authors of the First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance.”
But while the courts six decades ago ruled in favor of the First Amendment, the question for at least one parent and Maudlin, as well as a significant number of commenters to his Facebook post, is whether the material is appropriate for high school students.
Ultimately, Hamric said the committee ruled that “Howl” is “an influential part of our history” and, when taught in the context of the time period in which it was written, is an “important” piece of literature with widespread influence on poetry, art, jazz and hip-hop.
Hamric was unable to say whether any disciplinary action was taken against the teacher. It was recommended, in this case, an alternative assignment should have been provided for students who were not comfortable, and parents should have been contacted for permission.
In his year and a half in the position, Hamric said this is the first time a parent has officially objected to course material. There is an appeal process, he said, though at this time, the review process is complete.
“There was quite a consensus,” Hamric said, among the review committee, that “Howl,” “has educational value and merit.”
“Howl” contains offensive language, Hamric acknowledged, and language that offends different people in different ways.
But at the same time, “some of the best learning experiences” come from being able to “talk about controversial issues in a safe learning environment, where a teacher can support safe conversation, and views can be expressed in a respectful, monitored way,” Hamric said.
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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