Washington -- The poet wore black, but it was a suit, not a turtleneck sweater and beret. Listeners sipped strong coffee, but in carry-out cups from Starbucks. Only the poem remained the same -- still urgent and angry after almost 40 years.
Allen Ginsberg stood outside the U.S. Court of Appeals here yesterday and read "Howl," while lawyers representing him and others stood inside, arguing in markedly less colorful language that the Federal Communications Commission's ban on indecent material was unconstitutional.
"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," Mr. Ginsberg began, surrounded by a small group in which media types outnumbered his fans 2-to-1. The famous poem, which he seldom reads in public these days, took almost as long to recite as the time allotted for his lawyers' arguments.
Yet Mr. Ginsberg, competing with the traffic and sirens on Constitution Avenue, read without stopping, slipping ad libs about conservative Sen. Jesse Helms into the three-part piece dedicated to Carl Solomon, the "lunatic saint" he met in a mental hospital four decades ago.
At issue in the case before the appeals court is the FCC's attempt to limit "indecent" programming to midnight to 6 a.m. The 1988 law has been challenged repeatedly and was struck down most recently by a three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals last November. The government, which argues it has an interest in protecting children from indecent material, then petitioned the full court to hear the case.
The law is best known as the FCC's weapon against controversial disc jockey Howard Stern, whom Mr. Ginsberg dismisses as a "right-wing vulgarian." But it also has frightened public radio stations from airing Mr. Ginsberg's poetry.
CPacifica, a Berkeley, Calif., radio network that also is a party to the suit, stopped broadcasting 'Howl' and other Ginsberg poems, fearing a fine. And it's not just Mr. Ginsberg's work. Parts of "The Grapes of Wrath" were deemed too risky for Pacifica to broadcast, lawyer John Crigler said.
The 68-year-old poet finds the FCC's policy indefensible.
"At a recent symposium, James Quello, the oldest member of the commission, pulled out a copy of 'Howl' and said 'This is perfectly fine, all Mr. Ginsberg has to do is eliminate a couple of paragraphs.' That's their idea of freedom," he told his audience before reading.
In fact, a complete broadcast of "Howl" might have trouble under an older FCC ban. That ruling, limited to the seven dirty words used as the cornerstone of a famous George Carlin monologue, was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978. But the poem's use of those banned words is relatively sparing, especially given its sprawling length.
Remembered best for its opening line, "Howl" is an impassioned rant that easily lives up to its name, suggested by Jack Kerouac. It still has the power that caused poet William Carlos Williams to write: "Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell."
But if the words scream, Mr. Ginsberg does not. Instead, he relied on a rasping, forceful voice to carry him through the poem, whose style has been likened to Walt Whitman and haiku.
"I think it was pretty good," he decided afterward. "Heroic sounding. I'm surprised I made it through."
Most of those who came to see Mr. Ginsberg yesterday were not alive when "Howl" was written. But the high school and college students -- including a contingent from the Maryland Institute, College of Art -- hold the Beats in high esteem, even if the survivors of that literary movement are old enough to be their grandparents.
"My teacher handed me a note that he was here when I walked into first period. I cut second and came straight here," said Steve Wu, a 17-year-old senior at Rockville's Richard Montgomery High School. He presented a poem to Mr. Ginsberg and was rewarded with an instant critique: Strive for "maximum information, minimum number of syllables."
John Judge, 47, told Mr. Ginsberg how much "Howl" meant to him when he was a disaffected teen-ager in Falls Church, Va. "I was lost in the usual miasma of middle class culture," said the political activist.
While the FCC law is under legal challenge -- the so-called "safe harbor" for indecent material runs from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. -- Mr. Ginsberg prefers no limit, pointing out that high school students study his work during the ban's official hours.
Still, he stands to benefit from any ruling by the court, Mr. Ginsberg told his audience. "If 'Howl' is banned, young people will seek it out. They'll buy my boxed set of CDs, from Rhino Records, with my original reading of 'Howl.' I can't lose."