You sit in your cozy room, enjoying a casual read through any book you like. It feels like an indulgence, a quiet way to spend an hour with your feet up and a latte by your side – but in some countries, you could be arrested for reading the wrong book. You could be executed for writing one. And in our own land of the free, in some places, whatever you might be reading might be on the banned list. This year, Sept. 27-Oct. 3 is Banned Book Week, sponsored by the American Library Association, and it’s a chance to celebrate our freedom to read, as well as to support the books and authors whose work has made the banned list.
You’ve probably heard about the Harry Potter series or The Great Gatsby being banned. They are high on the list of books making waves in the world. The dictionary and the Bible are two other books you might not realize have been banned, too. But because I’m a poet and have strong feelz about poetry, I want to share some of the best poets whose work has made the censors cry – or at least, made them feel deeply enough try to censor the words.
- One of the best ways to interact with a child is to read her/him poetry. Beloved poet Shel Silverstein’s poetry has graced many a classroom and many a goodnight reading session. But some religious conservatives have banned Silverstein’s poetry because “it encourages children to misbehave.” Where the Sidewalk Endswas pulled from West Allis/West Milwaukee, Wisconsin, school libraries in 1986 because it supposedly “promotes drug use, the occult, suicide, death, violence, disrespect for truth, disrespect for authority, and rebellion against parents.”
- Alice in Wonderland (story and poetry together) could be banned for many reasons; it’s (possibly) a crazy, psychedelic drug trip written by an (alleged) pedophile (you didn’t know about Charles Lutwidge Dodson photographing Alice Liddell and her sisters in their underwear, or nude?). But that’s not why Lewis Carroll was banned in China. Apparently it’s problematic in China to portray anthropomorphized animals. Talking pigs and smiling cats are a no-go.
- William Shakespeare, arguably the greatest writer in the English language, has been banned many times. His plays and his sonnets excite the greatest difficulty for teachers by alluding to sex in many ways. In the annals of book-banning, The Merchant of Venice has been deemed anti-Semitic and Twelfth Night banned from a Merrimack, NH, English classroom for “encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative.” (Twelfth Night doesn’t actually discuss homosexuality; it features cross-dressing, with a woman dressed as a man. Or, as we say in the 21st Century, she’s wearing pants.)
- Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was withdrawn in Boston for the use of explicit language. By explicit language, they must have meant suggestive or evocative; such tingling in the nether regions of the old Bostonians was clearly too much. But banning a book of poetry doesn’t make homosexuality go away, my friends. For lush sensuality and exquisite word choice, do read Leaves of Grass. Or at least watch Dead Poet Society to get a feel for the language Whitman used.
- Here in sunny California, Allen Ginsburg found a voice, found a home. And in the 1950s he wrote a poem, Howl, which became not only the basis for the Beat Generation of poets and writers, but also the focus of an obscenity trial in which the poem was ultimately deemed not obscene. That does not prevent this poem from being the most banned poem of all time in America. In the aftereffects of the Second World War and the anxiety of the atomic age, Ginsberg wrote a poem that hearkened back to the desert wanderings of the Psalmists and the Prophets, invoking Moloch and holy flames. If you read Howl with any knowledge of Western theology, you may believe Ginsberg was banned for being a little too truthful.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry, wrote the very brief but pointed poem, “We Real Cool” (The Pool Players). The poem was banned for the line “We jazz June” which was taken to be a metaphor for sex. “We Real Cool” (The Pool Players) is so brilliant that you could read it in essentially any time period in American history and it would still ring true. It’s a stellar piece that should be familiar to any kid growing up in an urban environment, and should be required teaching in high schools, rather than banned.
- Banning books isn’t something that happened a long time ago. It’s happening now. Right now. Teachers of a Mexican-American studies curriculum in Arizona used to open the course with a recitation of the multilingual poem, “In Lak’ech,” a small part of a longer poem called “Pensamiento Serpentino,” by Luis Valdes, based on philosophical concepts from the ancient Maya. The poem is about accepting ourselves as who we are, and as part of the greater whole. It’s illegal to recite that poem in Arizona (in 2015). Lawmakers in Arizona said the poem “was politicizing students and breeding resentment against whites. The law forbids classes that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, foster ethnic solidarity, breed ethnic resentment or treat students as members of a group rather than individuals,” according to a Huffington Post article (click the link in this section to read the article).
- A British poet’s work, geared toward teens and lauded for helping teens to express themselves, was banned over fears the poem could incite knife violence in schools. The poem “Education for Leisure” by Carol Anne Duffy was banned by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance for being “too violent.” The poem opens with the line: “Today, I am going to kill something. Anything.” It continues, “I have had enough of being ignored and today I am going to play God…” Out of context, the lines could be frightening, especially with gun violence in the US as apparently rampant as it is. But in context, the words give voice to the lonely and confused teen, who feels powerless in Thatcher’s unemployed England. The last line is a genius twist, breaking through the fourth wall and addressing the reader directly. The poem makes the case for talking about violence with teens instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.
- Another California plum is the self-published little verse called “To Fuck With Love.” It truly is a love poem, written in the balls-out style of the 1960s, and the shocked parents and authorities of the Flower Children predictably fell apart. The poem, by Lenore Kandel, caused such a ruckus that police in San Francisco seized copies of the poem from City Lights Books and The Psychedelic Shop in 1966 and precipitated an obscenity trial, which she lost. The work was deemed obscene, but sales of the work skyrocketed. The decision was overturned on appeal, and the book sold well for many years. Kandel gave a percentage of her proceeds to the Police Retirement Association with no hard feelings.
- Shenanigans in Texas: Carmen Tafolla, selected poet laureate of San Antonio, had her poetry banished from Arizona classrooms in the same sweep that removed Luis Valdes. Her poem, “Voyage” from her own book Curandera, was banned in the Tucson (AZ) Unified School District in 2012. Her poem is a rich, delicious origins tale about Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America. She has written evocatively for children on claiming identity, on owning Hispanic heritage. But apparently that is not OK in Arizona. Rock on, Madame Poet Laureate – keep writing those poems. Here she is speaking about banning poetry and the need for Hispanic literature in schools.
What poems are you reading? What are you reading that pushes boundaries, that might be banned, that rattles the bars of your cage?