Kenneth Rexroth was a central figure and guiding light for what became know as the San Francisco Renaissance Movement. He preferred that name, rather than being labeled Father Of The Beat Generation – which, truths to tell, he pretty much was. But he was very much part of a shift in society that questioned censorship and actively supported free speech as a means of creative expression.
This monologue, recorded by Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley, California in 1957 comes in response to the seizing of a shipment of Alan Ginsburg’s Howl, shipped from a printer in Britain to the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Howl was famously condemned by all sorts of libraries and religious groups for being allegedly obscene and with its flagrant use of four-letter words inside its prose.
We really wouldn’t think too much of that now – or would we? Seems the issue of free speech and the area of censorship has come full-circle that, strangely we are going through a similar atmosphere of “diligent policing” of morals and expression not all that much different than that of 1957, when this talk was given.
Rexroth nails the fault of Policing on those who give knee-jerk reactions to things they know, in reality, very little about. In this case, it comes from a lack of education on the parts of the censors – in this case, not being very well read and condemning Howl out of hand, not having read the book or actually understanding the context at hand. And this is the issue we are facing today – knee-jerk responses without verification of intent or taken out of context. But worse, how we now have the issue of Algorithms being our morality police based purely on words on their own – and how censorship is conducted out of hand and generally overreached by an Algorithm programmed to do one thing; look for bad words, not bad context.
We’re knee-deep in this issue now and its different, owing to technology and the instant and often far-reaching nature of things. But is this so far removed from 1957 and the controversy over Howl? In a word; no.
So you can listen to this dissertation one of two ways – as a historic document by a critical figure in the arts who sounds a lot like William Burroughs in places, or by drawing comparisons between issues of suppression then and issues of suppression now. How we really haven’t changed and are struggling with the issue of culture and expression that we always have.
This isn’t the part of history that’s warm, fuzzy and nostalgic – this is the part of history that reminds you we aren’t as advanced or as worldly as we’d like to think.