Fifty years ago, a woman by the name of Lenore Kandel published The Love Book. It was an eight-page, 825-word volume of love poetry that would land her in hot water, and I do not mean soaking luxuriously in a hot tub.
I was just seventeen, you know what I mean, and the way she wrote was way beyond compare.
I was raised in a country that prided itself on its freedom of speech. We were taught as kids that America was so great because it was the Land of the Free. For years I had been pledging allegiance to the flag, a daily affirmation of loyalty to the country that was so great and powerful that we could pursue our happiness as we pleased.
But in my seventeenth year, Lenore Kandel’s poetry was confiscated and the alternative book store owners that sold it (City Lights Bookstore and the Psychedelic Shop) were put on trial and eventually convicted. The San Francisco Police Department deemed that her love poetry “excited lewd thoughts” and that the defendants “knowingly possessed obscene matter with the intent to sell.”
I immediately journeyed to San Francisco and bought a copy because I apparently needed some lewd thoughts in my young life. It cost $1.00.
Fifty years later, I fished into my memory stash and pulled out her book. I read it again. I was amazed at its beauty. Ironically, it spoke more to me as a man full of reflection arguably near the end of his sex life than it did when I was a sexual newbie full of hope and promise for the life ahead.
Witnessing for the defense, Kandel called her work “holy erotica.” She was writing about the connection between sexuality and spirituality, a connection she deeply felt. Even today, the cultural majority builds a Great Wall between the two. Sex is not considered spiritual in any way, shape, or form, and spirituality is likewise not considered sexual. Kandel offered a rare voice in suggesting that sex can be a religious experience.
Wrote Ken Hunt in 2009: Her poetry was deeply resonant of her immersion in South Asian mysticism in which spirituality may take allegorical paths, including ones of eroticism and carnality, to divinity. Her “Small Prayer for Falling Angels” communicated an understanding of Hinduism’s Goddess Kali that Westerners rarely have. “Kali-Ma, remember the giving of life as well as the giving of death… Kali-Ma, remember the desire is for enlightenment and not oblivion.”
Prosecuting obscenity cases has always turned into a miasma of legal jargon. Is a celebration of sexual stimuli as a springboard to spiritual responses the same as promoting “lewd thoughts?” Is attempting to describe the cosmic significance of fuck (a sacred word as she used it then) on the same shelf as just about any offering found at pornhub.com?
Yet in 1967, a jury took ten hours of deliberation to find the controversial book to be “utterly without redeeming social value,” a legal definition for obscenity.
As a result of the verdict, book sales skyrocketed!
In 1974, the judgment against Kandel was overturned in a higher federal court after a state supreme court had upheld the verdict.
OBSERVING THE OBVIOUS
Something else I find astounding about The Love Book is that a woman wrote it. Women at the time were seriously discouraged to boldly go where no man has gone before. Expressing enthusiasm about sexual love was usually a male author’s calling, and as such was often more about bragging rights than essays about cosmic wonderment.
Kandel was also a rare sex-positive voice, rare for either gender. In her book, she was positively enchanted about the joy of sex, and this before Dr. Alex Comfort came along with his best-selling book, which despite its title, did not seem nearly as joyful to me. Kandel’s poetry evoked visions of awe and wonder, especially if so-called dirty words pleased more than freaked the reader.
Some readers called The Love Book porn. Ironically, porn predominantly festers in negativity. Since 1966, the porn industry has had fifty years within which to explore, evolve, and perfect its product. The multi-billion dollar a year industry comes nowhere close to expressing the love, the hope, and the cosmic consciousness that was core to the message in The Love Book.
Porn usually treats people as if they have no other value in life besides being sex machines. By contrast, The Love Book is not anti-human. It is not sexually mean and condescending. It doesn’t even suggest non-monogamy. Even as her erotic poetry celebrates the role that flesh plays in the sexual dance, Kandel made clear that body enjoyment spawned consciousness that she found divinely inspired.
Said Lenore Kandel of her book: “I believe when humans can be so close together to become one flesh, or spirit, they transcend the human into the divine.”
The porn industry could learn so much if they paid attention to that 825-word book!
How strange a legacy to leave: poetry deemed obscene that teaches how sacred the body temple can be in the minds of lovers–and how taboo words can be used to accentuate beauty.
THE BIG PICTURE
The freeing up of language in America has not led to sexual enlightenment. Dirty talk has become a public spectacle, yet usually for insulting and marginalizing people, not for pointing the way toward higher sexual consciousness.
People growing up today come of age in a world full of edgy talk. When I was growing up, I had to launch a major search expedition to find dirty words in print. Look what happened when I searched today in google for the f-word: “About 241,000,000 results (0.36 seconds)”
Just about any night I can watch something on Netflix or HBO’s streaming service that is filled with colorful language, including depictions of President Selina Meyers’ expletives undeleted on Veep.
The take-away for me is more than just the novelty of the changing times, however. It’s more than that the printed words that caused arrests, prosecution, and persecution in 1966 are 2016 staples. Where would HBO ratings be without its cast of cursing characters on its original shows?
The take-away is that so many of our sacred cows are actually moving targets. We can get all excited about someone who does or says things differently than mainstream (or our peer group), and yet very little is granite solid in the big picture.
SEX ON THE MOVE
Different people see different things in sex. One person might see a cosmic miracle while someone else sees perversion and the next someone sees carnal entertainment, and so on. Further, over one person’s lifetime, the vision of what sex is can change, too. People change their minds about things based on the current circumstances in their lives.
I like to keep this principle in mind when I am tempted to judge people or when the circumstances of my life send me into new territory. I have far fewer absolutes in my life these days. Blacks and whites have all smeared into grays. I never know what it is like to dwell inside someone else’s body and that person’s unique history.
For the last fifty years, I have believed in my own version of holy erotica. If we were born and raised in a culture that took a more mature view of sexuality, treating it as a sacred gift and showing it respect, I believe that the global difference between what we have now and what we would have then would be astounding.
Sometimes I try to imagine what it might have been like living inside Lenore Kandel’s brain when she “fucked with love.” Did she truly experience in her own sex life the rapture she described in her poetry? Or was her poetry an attempt to define and describe a vision of what she hoped to find someday (for herself and for all of us?)
When I read her words, I am, of course, projecting my own consciousness into them. Words are just symbols, and we all have our own internal dictionaries. Yet I would definitely sign up “to change the temper of the air passing two strangers into one osmotic angel beyond the skin.”
Pretty deep stuff for someone whom many people labeled as a smut peddler. The God of my daydreams would look at Kandel’s writing and go, “Atta Girl! You got what I was going for!”
Informative article about the trial which goes into much more background about the case including how it was less of an obscenity trial and more about harassing hippies for rocking the social boat.
Excellent post about Kandel’s poetry and her place among Beat Generation poets. She was often overlooked.
Interview (video) with Lenore and information about her poetry.