Follow by Email

Search This Blog

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 clich├ęs 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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Are Your Titles Like Limp Handshakes?

Every poem’s title is like a handshake, your first chance at making a strong impression. An editor friend often confides in me about poems that cross her desk titled "Rain" and "Insect." Poems with bland and uninspiring titles like these just don't demand to be read. Not one bit. But a poem with a title like "The Gargantuan Muffin Beauty Contest"?  Who could resist? 

Here are a few ideas for how to extend a hand to your reader that he or she will definitely want to shake:

1. The title repeats the first line (or is part of the first line).

Wendy Videlock’s “I Don’t Buy It
John Donne’s “Death be Not Proud
Wyn Cooper’s “Chaos is the New Calm
Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman” 

2. The title is the first word or line.

Eduardo Corral’s “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes" 
Bob Hicok’s “Thought

3. The title repeats a phrase or "hook" from the poem.

A title can repeat a particularly compelling word/s or strong phrases from within the body of the poem. This is especially effective if the phrase in question is found near the end of the poem, creating a sort of “book end” effect, but also works well, in the case of the two examples below, when all or part of the title keeps getting repeated.


Julian Stannard’s “The Gargantuan Muffin Beauty Contest” 
David Rivard's "Otherwise Elsewhere

4. Name the poem the form the poem is written in. 

Kinda boring, so to spice things up add a flourish, rhyming or riffing off the form you are writing in. 

Mark Jarman’s “Unholy Sonnet 1
Kathy Fagan's "Saloon Pantoum"
Doug Lang's "Tina Sestina"

Note: in general, just adding a bit more detail to your poem--instead of "Rain," "My Cat Does Not Like the Rain," or, as in the case of this poem by Wallace Stevens, ""A Dish of Peaches in Russia" -- just by adding "in Russia," I so much more want to read this poem, don't you? And yet, to go all very-well-I contradict-myself on you, what's wrong with Sara Miller's title, "Cairo"? Maybe it's because it's Cairo, not Portland or San Francisco, but I was drawn in, just saying (no one said anything about these decisions being easy, or if they did they were, well, deluded). Sfumati, as my Italian teacher used to say, as in permutations, as in the gray area, as in the ability to hold two paradoxical ideas in one's head with relative easy, aka gone up in smoke, where we all should be when we're writing poems.

5. Answer a question.

A title can quickly clarify in-medias-res beginnings that could possibly interfere with the reader immediately being drawn in.

David Wagoner’s “For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop
Kit Frick's "Lunar Eclipse
Paisley Rekdal's "Mae West: Advice

Thanks to Frick's title we are well-oriented as to what's being described right from the get-go, while in Wagoner's poem the immediate question, whose eyelids? is dealt with straightaway. Same goes with Rekdal's title -- without it, we'd have no idea who was giving the advice, making the poem way less fun. 

Note: Beginning writers sometimes have this notion in their heads that they can't use their titles to explain crucial details about the poem--setting, impetus for the poem, allusion--right from the outset, instead attempting to either a) leave the reader guessing, or b) create strained "hints" throughout the poem. Some might not agree, but I like to be clued in right away with what the heck is going on. Unless you are intentionally setting out to write a riddle,  or you have some other genius reason to hold off with what's going on, it's usually best to cough up the situation/setting/trigger subject before you begin line 1. No one wants to feel like they're being left out on an inside joke, least of all a reader. 

6. Add detail.
A title can clarify something that would be cumbersome to include in the main body of the poem, often a particular necessary for the poem to make sense. 

Jan Heller Levi’s “Waiting for this Story to End Before I Begin Another”  

7. Use your title as springboard.
A title can provide a jumping-off place for the reader to enter into the poem. 

Patty Seyburn’s “On Cooking a Symbol at 400 Degrees

8. The Non-Sequitur. 
This one can sometimes backfire, but you can at least give it a try if you’re stumped (especially if you’ve written a dreamy/surreal kind of poem). Open a book randomly and steal a title by titling your poem the first word your eyes find. Or … title your poem after the name of a painting, a type of food, or an Irish high cross. You may find a connection randomly (which is always fun) or delight in the fact that the title and poem have absolutely no connection that you can find.

I was coming up empty-handed, but my pal David Graham helped me out by mentioning Wallace Stevens. How about his poem "Earthy Anecdote"? Okay, the poem is somewhat anecdotal, but earthy? It's about a herd of bucks and a ... firecat. And what about "Metaphors of a Magnifico?" Surreal, these titles -- kinda perplexing ... and mysteriously, comfortingly wonderful. Can you think of any others? There are lots of poets that do this, but I am coming up blank. 

9. The quirkier, more enticing, the better.


Kerrin McCadden's "If You Were a Zombie Boy" 
Marcus Wicker's "Creation Song in Which a Swift Wind Sucker Punches a Transformer
Cynthia Marie Hoffman's "The Calciferous Substance Speaks to the Sleeping Fetus
Dafydd Wood's "The Graduate Student in Comparative Literature Weighs the Merits of a Career in Pornographic Film

Which of these approaches to titling will work best depends, of course, on the poem. Err on the side of unusual, if not a little bit strange, and at least you won't run the risk of making an editor/reader snore. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Thoughts on Ending Your Poems

Mary Ruefle, in her wonderful book Madness, Rack, and Honey, references Roland Barthes on the subject of endings. Basically, he asserts there are three types:

1. The ending will have the last word;

2. The ending will be silent;

3. The ending will execute an unexpectedly incongruent pirouette.

Have the last word? Be silent? A pirouette? What in blazes is Barthes talking about? Well, here’s my stab at interpretation:

1. The ending will have the last word.
I think what Barthes is saying is that the final lines will resonate—they will “make”  the poem; without them, the poem just wouldn’t have that zing, that deep meaning that makes the reader swoon, emit the tell-tale poetry sigh (“ahhhhh”), leave us with a satisfied feeling that a box has been tightly closed, that a package has been festooned with just the right ribbon.

Example of a poem with ending that has the last word: Sharon Olds’ “I Go Back to 1947." “Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.” What would this poem be without this last line, where we are informed that all the dysfunctional pain the speaker endured will be spun into golden poetry? In a word, nowhere! But Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” is probably one of the best examples of the last word ending in the English language. What would this famous Bishop poem be worth without the statement “And I let the fish go”?

2. The ending will be silent.
Some endings are barely audible. It’s like the speaker is backing out of a room very slowly, not wanting to wake the infant he or she has just (finally, finally) put to sleep. They are so understated you read them over several times, trying to discern how in the world the poet pulled it off – exited her poem so quietly and tip-toe-ingly you hardly noticed. These poems are the opposite, the very opposite, of poems that end like Olds’ “I Go Back to 1947.” Molly Tenenbaum’s “I Live in a Yellow Ice Cream Truck” wraps up in a quiet way, sort of like the bottom of the poem is a blanket tucked under a mattress.

3. The ending will execute an unexpectedly incongruent pirouette.
Here’s a very short poem by WB Yeats with a somewhat out-of-nowhere flourish:"The Balloon of the Mind."  Who puts a balloon in a shed? There are likely many other examples of these final-line flourishes. Can you name others? I'd love to see examples of your interpretation of an "incongruent pirouette." 

Of course, there are the poems that do all three at once, exemplified in Kathleen Flennekin’s “Let me Sleep 20 more Minuets." This poem ends with an emphatic/essential, pirouette-ing whisper. What a tour de force! 

As you work on how best to end your next poem, think hard about how you want to wrap things up. Read as much contemporary poetry as you can, paying close attention to endings. When it comes to whether to end on an image, an action, a bold/profound/important statement, the best thing to do is try them all, post several different endings, ask your peers which one they like best and why. Keep reading poems and studying how they wrap up. Each poem you write improves your ability to end a poem successfully. Don’t be afraid to take a risk with a seemingly incongruous flourish. Who would have predicted Rohrer’s “Childhood Stories” would end with the purchase of a toy tomahawk, and yet didn’t we see it coming, sort of, once he mentioned pow-wows in line four?

Would love more examples of poems from each of these categories, so do send them along. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

January Beacon Bards with Stangeland & Horowitz

The robust crowd just keeps growing; more chairs, more chairs!

Poetry continues to reign each 2nd Wednesday of the month at the cozy and inviting Station Cafe in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood thanks to the ROCKitT Community Arts. Last night we were graced with listening to two very fine poets, Joannie Stangeland and David Horowitz. It might have been cold and dark outside, but inside we were warmed by their words.

It is a distinct honor to be host to such a wonderful group of local writers--2012 WA State Book Award Winner Christine Deavel and the multi-talented, ever-prize winning Molly Tenenbaum are on tap for March, followed by Poetry Northwest editor Kevin Craft and the delightful (and multitasking) Katharine Ogle in April.

I am heartened to curate this series at a venue where both newcomers and regulars can join together once a month to share in the simple pleasure of listening.  I've come to look forward to Betty Jean's recitation of Hafiz during the open mic that follows the featured readers, and to hear what Helen has been working on since our last gathering (last night it was a villanelle, her first).

If you haven't yet made the pilgrimage to The Station, consider checking it out on March 13 and/or April 10.

David Horowitz shares poems about the middle east, Seattle snowstorms, and the virtues of scotch tape,

Joannie Stangeland, who donates all proceeds from her books to Cancer Care Alliance, reads poems
about a friend's bout with cancer.

Note: As Nick Flynn will be reading for Seattle Arts & Lectures the 2nd Wednesday in February, 2/13, there will NOT be a Beacon Bards reading that night; I invite you instead to purchase a ticket to hear Flynn read at Benaroya Hall. A memoirist and poet, Nick Flynn is the author of the hugely successful Another Night in Suck City, along with several books of poetry, including Ether.