“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
- Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”

“I am the Lorax who speaks for the trees, which you seem to be chopping as fast as you please!”
- Dr. Seuss, “The Lorax”

Although these two works would not, at first (or even second or third) glance, seem to have much in common, they both acutely demonstrate, in their own way, the awesome power of poetry to tackle contemporary mores and challenge the status quo. Their power and their success in that respect are evident because they garnered one of art’s greatest badges of honor: the government sought to censor them.

Ginsberg was famously brought to trial – and acquitted – on obscenity charges for Howl’s profanity-filled and sexually explicit content. The Lorax was banned in at least one California school district for its allegedly negative portrayal of the logging industry, a major employer in the community.

Like prose, poetry has a long and distinguished history of censorship. The Roman poet Ovid was purportedly exiled in 8 A.D. because of his risqué poetry, and the work of Sappho was ordered burned on more than one occasion.

In case anyone thinks we’ve made progress over the centuries, it is sobering to learn that Shel Silverstein’s famous children’s poetry collection, A Light in the Attic, enraged enough hyper-sensitive folks that it ranked #51 on the American Library Association’s list of the most frequently challenged books in the 1990s. My favorite reason: one of the poems was accused of “encourag[ing] children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.” 

Of course, the poetry of music hasn’t escaped the censor’s thumb of disapproval either. Whether it’s President Nixon’s effort to encourage radio stations to censor songs with references to drugs or Tipper Gore’s 1980’s crusade against “explicit” lyrics, there has never been a shortage of taste arbiters ready to keep “dangerous” musical stanzas at bay.

Rhode Island earns a dubious spot in that censorship hall of fame. In 1990, the ACLU had to sue the Westerly Town Council when it sought, for alleged “public safety” reasons, to revoke the license of a nightclub owner who invited the controversial rap group “2 Live Crew” to perform. Among the town’s stated safety concerns was “the unprotected shore of the Atlantic Ocean” on the beach adjacent to the club. In a victory for both free speech and common sense, the court was not persuaded.

While we may laugh at such amateurish attempts to squelch free speech, we must realize that it is an ever-present danger. At the same time, though, let’s celebrate the meaning of such heavy-handed tactics: when the government seeks to censor a poem, it acknowledges its power – to move people, to persuade them, to make them think.

Best of all, it does one other thing: it tempts people to taste the forbidden fruit. As Mark Twain gloated to his editor when a library in Concord, Massachusetts banned Huckleberry Finn as “trash,” the censorship “will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”

It’s winter. Enjoy it by snuggling up with a good book of poetry and, in doing so, quietly chalk up another victory against the bluenoses and censors in our midst.

- By Steven Brown, ACLU of RI executive director.  Originally printed as an Op-Ed in the February 9, 2020 edition of The Providence Journal.