Banned Poetry

This week marks Banned Books Week, the American Library Association’s annual event designed to draw attention to the censorship challenges that some books and authors continue to face even in the twenty-first century. From time-honored classics (Lolita, The Bluest Eye, The Catcher in the Rye, Lady Chatterley’s Lover) to modern young-adult bestsellers (Speak, Two Boys Kissing, Looking for Alaska), novels have born the overwhelming brunt of censorship efforts in this country.

But censors and strict parents aren’t immune to the powerful effects of poetry on impressionable souls. Today on the blog, the Bas Bleu editors are taking a quick look at just a handful of poems that have drawn the ire of school districts, governments, and parents over the years.

Ars Amatoria, Ovid
Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso (a.k.a. Ovid) lived and wrote during the reign of Augustus, perhaps most famous today for his epic Metamorphoses. Ovid was banished by Augustus in 8 A.D., likely for political reasons. But the poet’s Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”), a three-book set of poetry that taught men and women the art of love and seduction, really stuck in the craws of moralists in later centuries: In 1497, it was burned by the powerful Dominican friar Savonarola in Florence, Italy, and seized by U.S. Customs as late as 1930.

“We Real Cool (The Pool Players),” Gwendolyn Brooks
“We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.”

Penned in 1959, Brooks’s brief but powerful poem was banned in schools in several states for the line “jazz June,” assumed to be sexual metaphor. Brooks has gone on record saying that wasn’t her intent when writing but that “I have no objection if it helps anybody.”

A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein
“If you have to dry the dishes
(Such an awful boring chore)
If you have to dry the dishes
(‘Stead of going to the store)
If you have to dry the dishes
And you drop one on the floor
Maybe they won’t let you
Dry the dishes anymore” —“How Not to Dry the Dishes”

If legions of kids love a book, chances are excellent that somewhere a school board or parents council will try to ban it from the shelves. Even with this knowledge, we were surprised to learn that Shel Silverstein’s delightfully snarky collections of poetry from the 1980s have been targeted repeatedly because they (allegedly) “glorified Satan, suicide and cannibalism, and also encouraged children to be disobedient,” “promote ‘supernatural themes’ such as ‘demons, devils, and ghosts,’” and (as in the poem reprinted above) “encourages children to break dishes so they won’t have to dry them.” Good grief!

“Howl,” Allen Ginsberg
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix”

Ginsberg’s 1955 poem about self-expression and non-conformism is heralded today as an American literary masterpiece. But in the 1950s, the Beat poet’s writing about homosexual sex earned the poem a very public obscenity trial in San Francisco, plus Ginsberg’s publisher and bookseller were both arrested for publishing and selling copies of the poem. Ultimately, “Howl” was declared not obscene by a judge in 1957.

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
I sing the body electric,
The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them,
They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,
And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.”

First published in 1855 but revised continually throughout the poet’s lifetime, Whitman’s now-iconic collection includes such classroom staples as “Song of Myself,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Whitman was also immortalized for moviegoers in the 1980s, thanks to Robin Williams’s passionate English teacher in the film Dead Poets Society. But initially Whitman’s poems shocked readers, who dismissed his verse as obscene. The collection cost Whitman his job at the Department of the Interior, fellow poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy into the fire, and the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion called it “a mass of stupid filth.” Yikes!

“Education for Leisure,” Carol Ann Duffy
“Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.”

Britain’s Poet Laureate has a storied career, but her 2008 poem “Education for Leisure”—which guides the reader through the mind of a young man or woman planning a murder—was accused of inciting violence when it was included in several school textbooks and anthologies. Advocates for the poem argue that it gives a voice to struggling, disenfranchised young people and “makes the case for talking about violence with teens instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.”

Hamlet, William Shakespeare
“Hamlet: Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?
Guildenstern: Faith, her privates we.
Hamlet: In the secret parts of Fortune?”

Yep, even the Bard, the greatest writer of all, has been the victim of censorship. Which, if you think about it, makes a lot of sense: His work is thick with sex and violence and obscenities (he probably invented a few of them). But perhaps the worst of the Shakespeare censors was Thomas Bowdler, whose 1807 collection Family Shakespeare included a heavily edited version of Hamlet. For his efforts, Bowdler inspired the word “bowdlerize,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “to expurgate (something, such as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar.”

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