Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg by Michael Schumacher

Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg by Michael Schumacher

Author:Michael Schumacher
Language: eng
Format: mobi
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Published: 2016-07-14T22:00:00+00:00


There was resistance to the radical changes taking place in New York’s bohemian community, and soon enough Allen found himself battling the political forces that advocated censorship in opposition to such wholesale freedom of expression.

The opportunity for a confrontation arose when the city government tried to restrict Village gatherings by enforcing a number of strict building-code and cabaret-permit laws that were virtually impossible for small coffeehouses, clubs, and cafés to comply with. On March 29, 1962, supposedly in response to complaints filed by cabaret owners, entertainment unions, and people living in neighborhoods with popular coffeehouses, the New York Coffee House Law had been passed. According to the law, any restaurant without a liquor license was required to purchase a coffeehouse license if it intended to present any form of live entertainment other than background music. To obtain such a permit, a coffeehouse owner had to comply with such building and safety codes as the submission of blueprints, installation of fire sprinklers, multiple fire exits, and kitchen flues—the codes to be enforced by the building and fire departments. Until February 1964, the law had not been enforced, due mostly to loopholes in it (it was amended) and the fact that poetry readings were no longer attracting the large crowds that had gathered during the heyday of the Beat Generation.

However, with the new community spirit in the Village came a renewal of well-attended readings and performances. One Wednesday night in February 1964, a license inspector entered the Café Le Metro during a Jackson MacLow reading and issued the establishment’s owner a court summons. The city regarded the action as enforcement of the law; the arts community saw it as censorship and harassment.

Allen and friends went immediately to work, petitioning the help of any city official who might be able to nudge their case forward. Allen met with the Village Independent Democrats, a powerful reformist organization that put him in touch with the assistant borough president and the East Village councilman. Allen pleaded his case and won them over. He and Henry Stern, the assistant borough president, then met with members of the Department of Licensing, who wanted to know why the poets did not simply go to larger, already-licensed coffeehouses. Allen patiently explained that the poets were uninterested in the commerce of poetry readings, that the smaller venues provided the intimate atmosphere conducive to a good poetry reading. The director was not only sympathetic to the poets’ cause but helped them enlist the American Civil Liberties Union for their defense. The court case, like the “Howl” obscenity trial in San Francisco nearly seven years earlier, was one-sided, with the defense ready to present an overwhelming battery of testimony and legal precedents in its favor. To prohibit such readings, the defense argued, was not an entertainment issue; it was a matter of free speech being violated in a nonprofit scenario. The judge agreed and ruled in favor of the defense.

This was only the beginning of the battle. With one judgment in their favor,


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