Thursday, June 4, 2015

"Reading Allen Ginsberg, Talking Civil Rights"

Award-Winning Teacher Fired for Reading an Allen Ginsberg Poem: so writes David Freedlander in the Daily Beast. As I have taught Ginsberg to a diverse cohort  in college and met with varying reactions of disgust, resignation, and acceptance, I wanted to share this article about this memorable lesson. "The poem the student discovered and brought in was 'Please Master,' an extremely graphic account of a homosexual encounter published by Allen Ginsberg in 1968 that begins: 'Please master can I touch your cheek / please master can I kneel at your feet / please master can I loosen your blue pants.'"As Freedlander places this in context of Game of Thrones and Fifty Shades of Grey, he also wonders if part of the crackdown is due to discomfort with the gay message, rather than the act itself.

The district ruled that David Olio, a nineteen-year veteran of the South Windsor CT system, showed “egregiously poor professional judgment,” by reading the poem aloud in the AP English class. Many of the students were 17 and 18 years old, some taking this course in conjunction with UConn for college credit. While this, as friends on FB have countered, does not excuse the fact that students had no choice but to listen to the poem, I wondered if the AP context mattered--I got the reply that it did not, and that this showed unwise judgment on Olio's behalf. What would you have done? Hurriedly suggest another poem might be discussed instead? Asked the class for feedback? Refused to talk about it? Those reactions in turn, given our tremulous times, ironically might have singled out Olio as intolerant. Well, one student had complained that he or she could not focus on a test in a another class the day after this poem had been discussed in the AP course. Three weeks later, Olio had to resign.

Freedlander avers: "to call Olio’s reading of the poem a mistake—a poem a student brought to class and asked to be read—is to say the reading of a work by one of the towering figures of 20th-century American poetry is out of bounds. 'Please Master' was written in 1968, just before the Democratic convention in Chicago would erupt in riots. Ginsberg had already been put on trial for obscenity in 1957 for his poem 'Howl,' which with its casual depiction of gay sex and drug use, and lines like 'The asshole is holy,' was considered far outside the bounds of what was considered good taste. A judge, however, ruled that the poem had 'redeeming social importance' and was unlikely to 'deprave or corrupt readers by exciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desire.' I doubt, having taught "Howl," having shown the innovative (if widely panned) film adaptation, that Allen seduces anyone--at least on the page. His portrayal by James Franco may, but many of my students cringed.

Helen Vendler, one of the nation's leading poetry critics, wrote on Olio's behalf: “Given what students are already exposed to via TV and film, Ginsberg’s poem, which concerns a well-known form of abjection (whether heterosexual or homosexual) reveals nothing new.” Courtney King, a former student and now a planning commissioner, puts it more bluntly. "I mean, if there are parents in town who think their teenagers don’t know what a blow job is, they are sorely mistaken.” She sums it up: “In defense of this whole imbroglio, at least it got people in this town reading Ginsberg.”

My blog title comes from a lyrical fragment I heard back in high school. It was sung by a musician who had an early song banned by the BBC in the late 60's for the f-verb. Al Stewart's "Post WWII Blues" in appropriately Dylanesque homage, from his 1974 song-cycle Past, Present and Future, first exposed me to Christine Keeler, Nostradamus, Lord Grey's phrase about the lights going out in Europe as WWI rose, Warren Harding's middle name, and the Soviet tank battles on the steppes. It's much better than his hits that dominated easy-listening AOR in that decade, be assured. The image caption, expanded, cites Ginsberg: "To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province, your own consciousness." But not too provincial, Connecticut.

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