January 8


The list of poems (and other works, but let's stick to the poems for the moment - you can find many of the books on December 6) banned as heresies, whether religious, political, moral or social, is too long for this page; but I shall try. 

Noteworthy among them is Ovid's "Ars Amatoria", which upset the Roman Emperor Augustus so much that he both banned the work and banished the poet; the poem survived, until the monk Savonarola included it in his "Bonfire of the Vanities" in 1497 (not to be confused with, but the reason for the title of, Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel and the film that was made of it). Christopher Marlowe translated it into English in 1599, only to find his version banned and himself imprisoned; U.S. customs added it to their list in 1930. 

The 1881 edition of Walt Whitman's endlessly rewritten and reprinted canonical "Leaves of Grass" was banned in Boston, though that city now requires study of it as part of its Literature programme (I guess I should write that as "program", given that Boston is in the USA) in secondary schools; required reading and banning are of course both forms of coercion and control. 

The French government suppressed six of the poems in Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" and charged him with corrupting public morals; the work was republished the following year and has never been out-of-print since. The version I have linked to here provides an English translation alongside the French original - just trying to be helpful (as well as so enjoying putting these equivalents of the "Mohammed cartoons" out there on my own version of Charlie Hebdo pages!). 

The complete works of Osip Mandelstam disappeared on Stalin's orders, with the poet banished to death-by-exile (he died in Voronezh in 1937; I bought my copy from a book-scalper on the Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg in 2002, exactly the same place Yevtushenko reports buying his, in "Wild Berries"; alas I can't find a complete works in English anywhere on line; if you can, please let me know and I will update this page). 

Alan Ginsberg's "Howl" fell victim to an obscenity trial in 1957. 

"Education for Leisure" by the current English Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy was banned in 2008 by the school’s examinations board AQA… plus ça change…

Why have I put all this under January 8th, and noted the year as 1642? Because this was the date on which Galileo Galilei died, in Arcetri in Italy, not a poet it is true, but a name that I cannot bring myself to wilfully exclude from a list of the banned geniuses of our moronically stupid world. I wrote this poem for him, many, many years ago:

(for Galileo Galilei)

at Arcetri
near Florence
under house arrest
working only under close policing
completely blind
censured by the ecclesiastical authorities
sentenced to death by Pope Urban VIII
(commuted at the personal behest of the Duke of Tuscany)
on the 65th birthday of the Danish astronomer Johannes Fabricius
(the man who actually discovered sunspots)
on the anniversary of the death of Marco Polo
at the age of 77
Galileo Galilei
broken on the rack of disappointment

Of his achievements we can list:

the inference
from the oscillations of a lamp
suspended in the cathedral at Pisa
of the usefulness of a pendulum
in measuring time exactly

the invention of a hydrostatic balance

a treatise on the law of specific gravity

the theory of falling bodies

the invention of the thermometer
and the proportional compass

the development of the refracting telescope
and its use in determining
the nature of the lunar landscape

the discernment of the structure of the Milky Way

the discovery of four satellites of Jupiter

the proof of solar rotation
based on the evidence of sunspots

the law of uniformly accelerated motion

the law of the parabolic path of projectiles

the law of virtual velocities

the law of inevitable weightedness

All these
or heresy
depending on your point of view


Some time after writing that poem, I found myself drawn back to the theme (probably something of mine had just been banned, or me forced to resign from some position, or even imprisoned, because somebody didn't like something I had written), and wrote a rather more prosaic piece which I called:


The Argaman Press proudly presents its unique catalogue of writings which, according to the highest authorities of their days, constitute some of the greatest masterpieces of all time, the equals of Shakespeare, Dante, Molière...

“La Grande Bataille de Crecy”; author or authors unknown, probably written down in the late 13th century but originating much earlier, it is held to be the greatest of all works in the troubadour style of poetry, though unusual in that it departs from the customary themes of love and romance to speak of the massacre of the Celtic French (Armoricans) by the Angevins (Normans).

“The Gospel According to St James”; written in Greek and originally published in Egypt, James’ account of the life of his master is characteristically different from the better known synoptic gospels, particularly in its insistence on what may be termed gnostic conceptions. The book first appeared in Europe in about 1400 CE; many scholars hold it to be a fake.

“La Saga di Gabrielle” by Roberto di Guislano; a 14th century Italian romance which sought to merge the Commedia Dell’Arte and Condottiere traditions of Italian theatre and prose. It tells the story of the archangel Gabriel, sent by God to announce the birth of Jesus to Mary, and of how he fell deeply, and carnally, in love with her, ultimately fathering the child himself.

“Tempus Fugit” by Guiseppe di Scarlatto; an early 15th century Italian tractate which promulgated the notion, gleaned as so much Renaissance culture was from the Arabic, that time is less important than action, and that the person who carries out the action is the least important of all.

“The Virgin Mary Magdalene”, a poem by the 15th century Flemish poet Richard Van Der Elk, in which it is imagined that the two Marys of Christian tradition were in fact one and the same.

“Antonio” by Mordechai Levy; written in 1634 but never performed in England, it presented a riposte to Shakespeare’s story of “The Merchant of Venice” from a Jewish perspective.

“Against Slavery: A Polemic” by Brahame Swift. Unlike his elder brother, Jonathan, Brahame wrote but one book. A marginal note in the journals of William Wilberforce suggests that copies of the book were circulated privately over several decades. Wilberforce himself was powerfully influenced by its coherent and lyrical attack on all forms of human slavery, including, interestingly, marriage.

“Gott Ohne Ich, Ich Ohne Gott” by Hermann Dietrich Fassbinder. A 19th century German essay in novel form which arguably was the first modern work to establish atheism as a defensible intellectual posture.

“The Princess Clementine Rose”; an otherwise run-of-the-mill romance by one of the 19th century’s lesser known women novelists, Mary Graveney; it enjoyed a brief succes de scandale for its unusually graphic descriptions of lesbian love.

“The Complete Poems of Osip Mandelstam.” Only about a tenth of Mandelstam’s oeuvre has survived his persecution at the hands of Stalin. This volume brings the remainder together for the first time.

All of these works - and many, many more - are offered by us as titles only, as the manuscripts are alas no more. What all these works have in common is their unavailability, and the reason for their unavailability. They share a common fate. What might otherwise have been handed down to us as some of the greatest masterworks of European culture may now only be savoured, relished, deified, as titles. Each of these works was banned, burned or prescribed by the particular authorities of their day, because they were perceived as challenging those authorities, or the status quo, or as being inflammatory and therefore dangerous to the common reader. What remains is an index, utterly mouth-watering, though alas not mouth-watering enough to quench the fires in which they burned. 

The illustration immediately above is from an exhibition that I was fortunate enough to see in Toronto, and even bought the catalogue, which I still have. You would be amazed at how much of what is regarded as the world's greatest works of literature has at some time, including right now, been banned, in one country or another, and sometimes all of them. "Nihil obstat", or in full "nihil obstat quominus imprimatur", is the nearest the Pope will ever commit himself to approving a book for publication; "it contains nothing contrary to faith or morals" is not actually a green light, but it allows the process to move forward. Once it is approved by the full Synod, it is given the stamp 
"imprimatur" - "let it be printed". There is no equivalent for the refusal of a book; like the thousands that sit there unread because unsolicited in the dumping-rooms of commercial publishing houses, books that you don't want to publish can simply and safely be ignored.

Some of this blog-entry is taken from my collected poems "Welcome To My World", with the additional piece "The Index" from my minimalist-story collection "The Captive Bride", both published by The Argaman Press in 2013.

I apologise to all those many authors, poets, painters, scientists philosophers, journalists, and more, who I have not managed to include on this page, and dedicate this day to all of you. Damn the censors!

You can find David Prashker at:

Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
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The Argaman Press

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