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Friday, January 25, 2013

To Swear or Not to Swear: Profanity in Poetry

 I was jogging along the other day listening to a reading by Michael Dickman, which got me thinking about the business of expletives in poetry. In grad school it was suggested that we avoid using them altogether, our professors dismissing them as cop-out words, stand-ins for the precise language necessary to describe the speaker’s point of view. Grabbing the first cuss word that came to mind was simply a way of avoiding the difficult job of tracking down just the right words to clarify what’s going on in a poem. To throw in a ‘fuck’ or a ‘damn’ was to wheedle out of the responsibility to be clear, precise, to put the best words in the best order.

And then there’s Michael Dickman’s “Emily Dickinson to the Rescue,” which begins:

Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she took a shit every

or ever fucked anybody
or ever fucked herself

‘Shit’ and ‘fucked’ definitely got my attention. Emily Dickinson taking a crap or getting fucked or masturbating: wow, I hadn’t ever considered that. Establishing the tone and diction right there in the first few lines is a good idea. Also, there’s something refreshingly frank about using the most common and crass words for bodily functions, to swap out lovemaking and go with the vulgar and common. Let’s see, what if Dickman had written

Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she defecated every
or ever had sexual intercourse with anybody
or ever dirty danced herself

or what if Dickman’s arresting confession took a step further toward decorum, declaring instead a veiled reference to what goes on in the boudoir and the bed:

Standing in her house today all I could think of was whether she had
         bodily functions at all
whether she knew of intimacy
whether she was intimate with herself

Or how about if he replaced his frank and lowbrow diction with concrete images:

Standing in her house today, my head heady with white, with light,
there was no way, just no way, I thought, that she could have been a beast,
a creature with animal urges, with animal needs.

These all sound stupid, downright ridiculous. Why? Because the euphemisms  detract from the power of those opening lines, their forthrightness. Anything less than the words Dickman chose, in fact, won’t do. Why?  Because in this instance the profanity is not gratuitous but necessary.

Does this mean I’m giving profanity a green light? Well, yes and no. I think it takes a lot of drafting and revising and thinking before deciding whether to give the expletive the heave-ho or let it stay put.

While you are trying to decide whether to keep the ‘fuck’ in or take it out, bear in mind that many people find profanity offensive. When profanity is used on television or over the air, for instance, many people object, forcing the station to block it with a beep and blurring the curser’s mouth; or they set parental features on their televisions to block expletives out and replace them with tamer words.

In short, profanity limits a poem’s appeal, and also you won’t be able to read it at an all-ages open mic. And because in the non-poetry world profanity is very prevalent, peppering your poems with vulgar words will likely reduce its force, serving to weaken phrases you thought would be strengthened. Keep in mind that bad language and clichés share the same aptitude for not engaging the reader’s senses: dead as a doornail, let sleeping dogs lie, on thin ice, holy fucking shit.

Also, introducing expletives into a poem won’t necessarily make them more strong or forceful. Ironically, a stale, ready-made, chunk of profanity almost invariably shuts the reader out, dwindling the possibility of his experiencing the fucking shitty thing that happened to the speaker.

Another thing to consider: cussing draws attention to itself. Writers forget that many people aspire to a profanity-free environment. By using expletives, they discourage many from reading lines like, I’ve got that shit that those fucking bastards do down to a science. For some, the only thing they’ll remember about a poem with a line like that is that the poem contained smutty language. This is the opposite of what a word in a poem is supposed to do, namely, enhance and illuminate the whole, not either obscure it or leave the reader unchanged except in that s/he now knows that poems can and do contain expletives.  In other words, the four-letter word sucks up all the psychic space in the poem, leaving little for the ordinary words like chair and tree.

This is the main reason to think twice about using expletives: they defeat the poet’s purpose: to use language to reveal a specific meaning. The poet doesn’t have to resort to profanity in most cases—she can use understatement or hyperbole, or she can choose words with hard consonants that closely resemble curse-words but are actually just a bunch of f and hard c sounds. For many crafting a poem in this fashion is preferable to flinging out a bitch or a cunt.

Here’s the thing: Shit can mean just about anything (that was some nasty shit; I was feeling shitty; I told him he was full of shit, that don't mean shit). When someone’s referred to as a cunt, well, that leaves the reader with all kinds of questions and uncertainties. The single case I can make in favor of expletives is in the name of voice, authenticity of a voice. If the speaker’s voice dictates what my dad referred to as gutter talk, belt it out!

But don’t throw in a word like ‘fuck’ when you don’t have the wherewithal to find an apt metaphor or interesting/musical language. Know, like Dickman, when it’s best to stick to your profanity guns, but don’t fall into habitual usage (note: that in the above-referenced excerpt, Dickman’s poem is cussword free after the opening set). Remember, you can pull off anything in a poem, so long as you’re true to its singular and unique set of operating instructions.


Michael said...

Martha- Enjoyed your post. I'm not in the habit of throwing F bombs around in my poetry but I was interested to read your take in part because I once struggled with submitting a certain poem to a literary journal because of this since the journal was based in a Jesuit University. I ended up sending it with a number of others and immediately after dropping the envelope in the mail box I wanted to instantly take it back. I ironically they accepted it. It was the only one of the ones I sent that made it to print in their annual publication.

Anyway, good post. Humorous and yet a serious topic to consider.


Martha Silano said...

Hi Michael - thanks for your kind words and for sharing your story. I had a similar thing happen (having what I deemed a *racy* poem accepted at a university with a Christian affiliation) -- maybe it's an attempt to show that Christians/Catholics can be hip and irreverent?