In 1644, poet John Milton famously wrote, “[Censors] rake through the entrails of many an old good author, with a violation worse than any could be offered to his tomb.” The statement comes from Aeropagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England, a spirited defense of free speech that he wrote in response to Parliament’s Licensing Order of 1643. Milton, who himself was the victim of censorship in his efforts to publish treatises defending divorce, published Aeropagitica in defiance of the same censorship law it argued against.
While Milton’s treatise was a response to an immediate threat to freedom of speech, the practice of censoring and banning literature both predates and postdates Milton’s defense — particularly as it relates to poetry.
A few decades later, poet, novelist, and playwright Oscar Wilde said, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Even later, poet Joseph Brodsky said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”
While the history of censorship has become more visible in the last few years through campaigns like Banned Books Week, perhaps less noted or known within that history is how poets and poetry have been similarly challenged, censored, and banned.
In honor of Banned Books Week this year, Poets.org took a look at several significant poetry collections, poems, and poets that have been challenged, censored, banned, and even burned throughout history and continue to be challenged as controversial works even today. Check out 10 of those banned poetry books below.
Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) by Charles Baudelaire: Banned in 1857 for eroticism, and, according to the judges, poems that “necessarily lead to the excitement of the senses.”
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll: Banned for alleged promotion of drug use and portrayal of anthropomorphized animals.
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: Banned for its criticism of the medieval church, as well as its obscene language and sexual content.
Howl by Allen Ginsberg: Challenged in a famous 1957 obscenity trial for its language and content about drug use and sexuality.
Amores (Loves) & Ars amatoria (Art of Love) by Ovid: Banned, challenged, and burned for sexual content.
A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein: Banned for encouraging bad behavior and addressing topics some deemed inappropriate for children.
First Folio by William Shakespeare: Several plays banned for profane language, sexual content, violence, political implications, and more.
Dlatego żyjemy (That’s What We Live For) by Wislawa Szymborska: Banned in 1949 for political content during Stalinist Poland.
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman: Famously “banned in Boston” in 1882 for sexual content.
Read more about these banned works and other challenged poets and poetry, as well as poetry's place in the history of banned books, on Poets.org.
You can view the Poets.org article, titled "Poetry's Place in the History of Banned Books," here.