Essay

Reader Discretion Advised

On profanity and the sublime in poetry.
Illustration depicting profanity.

Editor’s Note: As you might have guessed, the following essay abounds with profane language that might not be suitable for all audiences. Read at your own risk.

At first, fuck is only phonemes. To the uninitiated, the word is no more than the sum of its linguistic parts: a fricative, a schwa, a velar stop. Fuck’s real power lies in its transgressiveness. It’s a dirty word, but a versatile one: noun, verb, adjective, adverb, a sui generis part of speech altogether. Fuck is profane. In some circles, it’s also sacrilege, almost on par with the smut that gets a person eternally damned. And so fuck becomes fun. A provocation, a taboo.

Punishments for profane language vary by culture and context, but in America a foul mouth is scolded, washed out with soap, censored, or even cited. In Massachusetts, anyone older than 16 is subject to fines for using “impure language” at sporting events, and an errant “Jesus Christ!” could theoretically land someone in jail. Obscene words are bleeped or minced on-air, asterisked or expurgated in print. In January, when President Trump reportedly referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries,” the New York Times’s headline discreetly described his language as “disparaging words,” while the Washington Post printed the insult in full. Most cable newscasters repeated the word on-air, and it scrolled across CNN and MSNBC’s chryons. Fox News, meanwhile, bowdlerized the word with dashes.

For poets, the stakes of using profanity are different. Each of a poet’s “fucks” is deliberate and premeditated, deployed for meaning and phonetic value rather than shock value. Weeks before Trump co-opted the word, I asked poet Maggie Smith about the power of “shithole” in her poem “Good Bones.”

 … Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Smith tells me the word has been in the poem since the first draft. “It feels right to me as a colloquialism,” she writes via e-mail. “It's the first poem I ever used profanity in, but to me it feels like an integral part of the poem. I think it helps keep the poem from being too sentimental, and it gives the poem its ‘teeth.’”

But in some contexts off the page, the word has been sanitized. When the poem was featured on the CBS drama Madam Secretary, the network’s legal department asked Smith for possible replacement words. "I suggested either ‘dump’ or ‘hellhole,’ and both cleared, so I chose to go with ‘hellhole,’” Smith says, adding, “Some newspapers have opted to use asterisks when reprinting the poem (sh******), and when I read the poem for a video on The Ohio State University homepage, the word was silenced."

For poet Morgan Parker, profanity is a matter of voice. “I want to use all the words in my vocabulary, and use them precisely,” she says. Indeed, the language in her poems turns from colloquial scene-setting to lament with abrupt grace. “Goddamn,” for example, sharpens the title of her Solange-inspired poem, “We Are the House That Holds the Table at Which Yes We Will Happily Take a Goddamn Seat.” And in the Paris Review, in 2016, she published “Hottentot Venus,” which begins:

I wish my pussy could live
in a different shape and get
some goddamn respect.

“I talk often about working to create a portrait in my poems—sometimes that includes a well-placed, natural 'fuck' or 'goddamn,'” Parker says. “For me, everything is about authenticity. And it wouldn't be authentic to censor myself.”

Profanity has connotative effects, but it may have physiological ones as well. In her book Swearing is Good for You, scientist Emma Byrne differentiates between two types of swearing: non-propositional and propositional. The former is an almost involuntary response to surprise or pain, while the latter is deliberate. Non-propositional swearing might have analgesic effects. Byrne cites a study from Keele University in England in which undergraduate volunteers withstood more pain and had higher heart rates while swearing than not. The studies suggest that non-propositional swearing “does something to the emotions that makes pain easier to stand,” with fear and aggression the two emotions most likely implicated.

A lot of brain science is oversimplified, but Byrne explains that the left side of the brain processes “controlled” language—which is why patients with left-side injuries are more likely to be aphasic—while the right side processes emotion. A patient with right-hemisphere damage is more likely to forget poems learned by heart, miss the punchlines of jokes, and forget how to swear.

Poets exploit propositional profanity—the deliberate kind. A “shit” or “damn” in a poem is there for a reason. Propositional swears, Byrne writes, are “processed mainly in the left hemisphere [of the brain] for structure, sound, and meaning,” but both sides of the brain are involved, because “swearing is inextricably bound up with our emotions.”

***

Some pearl-clutchers and hand-wringers disapprove of profanity in poetry because they find it lazy, irreverent, or evidence of a meager vocabulary. In the 1990s, British author Bryan Appleyard deemed poet Philip Larkin’s casual diction little more than “provincial grotesque.” Moreover, Appleyard wrote, Larkin’s work, like the poet’s life, exhibited “repellent, smelly, inadequate masculinity.”

Similarly, writing in The New Republic in 1935, Kenneth Burke dismissed E.E. Cummings’ work as dirty and puerile. Reviewing the poet’s collection No Thanks, which includes arguably Cummings’ dirtiest poem, “the boys i mean are not refined,” as well as an untitled poem that includes both “k—” and “fuck,” Burke condemned Cummings as “devoted to cryptic naughtiness of an immature sort.”

For other readers, profanity isn’t too childish but too adult. Such was the argument against Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems on the basis of the line “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” In 1957, U.S. Customs famously seized crates of the book after they arrived from City Lights’ London-based printers. “You wouldn’t want your children to come across it,” inspector Chester MacPhee told reporters.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried for printing, publishing, and selling the “obscene” materials, but was found not guilty. In his decision, Judge Clayton Horn wrote, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism?”

Of course, poets used profane language long before “Howl.” In 1606, the Master of Revels banned profanity from the stage, yet many religious oaths appear in the original quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays, including “zounds” (God’s wounds) and “sblood” (God’s blood). Modern critics now celebrate Shakespeare’s ingenious profanity-less insults (“you three-inch fool,” you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish,”) as well as his covert references to genitalia. “Nothing” refers to a woman’s lack of thing, while “Roger” means penis.

In the seventeenth century, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, was known for his naughty verse. Consider, for instance, this portion of “A Ramble in St. James Park”:

But though St. James has th’honour on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt.
There, by most incestuous birth,
Strange woods spring from the teeming earth.

Or consider the candor of Jonathan Swift’s 1732 poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room:”

Thus, finishing his grand survey,
The swain, disgusted, slunk away,
Repeating, in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits.

In the 20th century, there’s T.S. Eliot, whose lesser-known early work includes “The Triumph of Bullshit,” a poem addressed to his haters and believed to be written around 1910. It ends like this:

And when thyself with silver foot shalt pass
Among the Theories scattered on the grass
Take up my good intentions with the rest
And then for Christ’s sake stick them up your ass.

As times change, once-risqué words can lose their sting. “Swearing is a bellwether—a foul-beaked canary in the coalmine—that tells us what our societal taboos are,” Byrne writes. Overuse of certain words can dull their emotional impact. Religious swears such as hell, damn, and Christ are generally less offensive today than they were a couple of centuries ago. Byrne cites a fortchcoming study of more than 10 million words of recorded speech collected from 376 volunteers. Analysis of the recordings suggests that racist, homophobic, and ableist slurs have “disappeared from people’s everyday speech,” according to Byrne, despite what internet trolls would have you believe.

Though some readers still consider it indolent, “fuck” can be a beautiful, even subtle word. When Philip Larkin wrote “This Be the Verse” in 1971, he sent it to his friend and editor (and now literary executor) Anthony Thwaite. Larkin mentioned it might be suitable for Garden of Verses, the journal run by Thwaite’s wife, Ann, although it’s also possible he meant it for the New Statesman, which Thwaite then edited. Neither Thwaite nor his wife accepted the poem; it ended up in The New Humanist instead. Regarding the f-bombs, Thwaite wrote to Larkin in a 1973 letter, “The phrase is needlessly coarse, unthinking and inexact.” 

But fuck is the perfect word for the poem. That first indelible instance—“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.”—establishes the cool, conversational tone, but it also works both figuratively and literally. Your parents, in the act of fucking, make you up. They also, of course, mess you up, psychologically, emotionally, and in more inexplicable ways. “Fuck” just sounds better. “Mess” or “screw” would never work. They lack the oblique rhyme linking “fuck” and “up,” plus the impropriety of “fuck” lends the speaker a kind of rough authenticity.

When used again and again, “fuck” can hammer home a feeling, or a mood, as do the twelve lamenting fucks in Etheridge Knight’s “Feeling Fucked Up,” included in The Essential Etheridge Knight from 1986. In the second stanza, fuck is the great equalizer:

Fuck Coltrane and music and clouds drifting in the sky
fuck the sea and trees and the sky and birds
and alligators and all the animals that roam the earth

Everything from democracy to tomatoes to God is equally useless and infuriating to the speaker, part and parcel of “the whole muthafucking thing” that doesn’t matter anymore since his “woman” is gone. The pliancy of “fucked” lends the title many meanings: feeling has done the fucking up, or the speaker is feeling fucked up, or feeling in general is fucked up.

Consider how “fucking” functions in Catherine Wagner’s “This Is a Fucking Poem,” from her 2009 collection My New Job. When paired with the first line—“don’t expect too much”—the poem’s title suggests that this poem will fuck with your expectations, or that a poem isn’t anything special, or that a poem about fucking isn’t anything special. The poem goes on to complicate our already modest expectations by layering images of childbirth atop those of monstrous, almost Kafkaesque disfigurement.

shudder out the little-girl
legs with a little
girl head mostly eyes, no ears,
bug brain, aimless

After reading the poem, the first line hints at a different interpretation. It’s not just a warning to have low expectations but a caveat that whatever expectations the reader does have will be wrong. This is, after all, a poem that fucks.

Sometimes, “fuck” appears to mean straight-up copulation, as when Alice Notley’s “As Good as Anything” inventories ways to pass the time in Iowa City: “You can fuck / a visiting poet;  you can be paraded before / a visiting poet as fuckable but not fuck.” But the poem is also a bird-flipping to the “befoibled guys” who make the rules, the men

who think—you know—
the poetic moment's a pocket in
pool; where can I publish it; what can
I do to my second or third wife now.

It’s the same effect as Eileen Myles’ anti-elegy “On the Death of Robert Lowell”:

O, I don’t give a shit.
He was an old white haired man
Insensate beyond belief and
Filled with much anxiety about his imagined
Pain.

Myles ends the poem by dismissing the death of the famous “white haired coot.” Myles tells me via e-mail, “It's how a person would talk when a famous poet died and everyone was oh he was so beautiful with his white hair walking through Harvard Yard. It's a class thing and a young poet thinking fuck him, fuck the poetry world's reverence for wasps and their well preserved and honored beauty.”

Myles argues that fuck and shit are “good strong words” on a sonic level, and “socially they are made even stronger by prohibition.”

But all swears are not created equal. I’ve favored “fuck” so far because I love it most, maybe because of the the word’s intensity and the brain’s kneejerk reflex. Byrne refers to one unofficial, unpublished study from Keele University in which students found that “fuck” is a better painkiller than “shit” or “damn” or “bum.” And it’s true that to “not give a shit” is different somehow than to “not give a fuck.”

Maybe it’s a matter of phonemes. There could be more of an emotional response to “f”— a voiceless labiodental fricative—than “sh”—a voiceless palate-alveolar fricative. Maybe it’s all in that initial sound, the bite of the lip that forms the “f.”

***

The subtle differences between profane words pose significant challenges to literary translators. In choosing equivalents between languages, context is as important, and can be as hard to determine, as the cultural taboo of particular words. According to Idra Novey, an American novelist and poet who translates Spanish literature into English, “What sounds violent or shocking in one language may not resonate the same way in translation.”

As an example, Novey points to the Chilean concha tu madre. “Its literal meaning is ‘shell of your mother,’ with ‘concha’ shell being a vulgar word for vagina along the lines of pussy or cunt. Its intended profane meaning is ‘your mother's pussy,’” Novey says. She explains that the phrase is used in contemporary Chilean poetry to “indicate rage or informal exclamatory speech, but translating its connotations and what they reveal about the speaker, using the phrase in one context or another, is tricky.”

Emma Ramadan, who translates French literature, notes that English lacks robust vocabulary for body parts. The language renders anatomy either clinical or vulgar, while French allows for more elegant variety. “[The French] word for our rather blunt ‘crotch’ is entrejambe - so lovely,” Ramadan says.

And then there are words whose meaning in one language is too particular to have an exact equivalent in another. Ramadan mentions the French “trouer,” which means to have sex with, “but trou in French means hole, so trouer can also literally mean to tear a hole in,” she says. “It's incredibly visceral and I never know how to translate it because the English equivalents like "fuck" just don't have that same image attached to them.” In the Virginie Despentes novel she’s translating now, Ramadan settled on “‘boning’ or ‘get fucked.’”

In poetry, there’s the question of how to translate rhythm in addition to translating diction and register. Laura Marris, who co-translated a recent volume of Paol Keinig’s poems, was working with profanity in both French and Breton. She tells me via e-mail, “I've also thought about translating profanity in terms of emphasis and timing—it's a bit like comedy that way.”

Marris points to lines in Keinig’s poem “Abalamour” in which the poet describes “the spirit of the age” as “a thousand snouts fighting to / gulp the right soup, a thousand butts shitting, the voices of pigs at feeding time sing / louder than poetry...’” Marris says that a profane word in a poem is often meant to “make sure the poem doesn't take itself too seriously. Or rather, that the poem doesn't lose track of the anger that caused it to be written it in the first place.” In Keinig’s case, profanity evokes “the difficulty of speaking your mind in the age of corrupt politics, environmental extraction, and factory farms.”

There’s also the matter of capturing a poem’s musicality. As Marris observes, profanity is inseparable from its local delivery. “In America, profanity is percussive—fuck, shit, bitch,” she says. “But that's not true in a lot of places. I remember learning the phrase ‘tu me casses les pieds’ (literally, ‘you're breaking my feet,’ though it has more explicit versions) as a visiting student and wondering how it should be rendered. It would be odd to have a swear in English with that many soft ‘s’ sounds. But when I heard someone shout it on the street for the first time, I understood that it could be percussive too!” Such sharp sounds help capture a poem’s energy in translation.  

Whatever the language, a swear word’s connotation sometimes matters more than its denotation, or literal meaning. For example, the Chinese “eat tofu” (吃豆腐) can describe a person’s diet, but it can also mean “pervert, cheater, molester, sick-minded person, etcetera,” according to poet and translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain.

The phrase appeared in the Chinese novelist Mao Dun's novel Midnight, published in 1933 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Untranslated, it reads as: “你不要慌,我同女人是规规矩矩的,不揩油,不吃豆腐.” Sze-Lorrain says the literal translation is something like “I'm orderly with women, don't wipe oil, don't eat tofu,” which she translates as, "Don't panic, I behave properly with women; I'm neither a cheater nor pervert."

Sze-Lorrain also mentions the Grass Mud Horse meme, the translational pun that, in 2009, spurred an Internet phenomenon, many socially transgressive nursery rhymes, and a piece by the famed dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

“‘Grass-mud horse’ (草泥马) are three Chinese characters that are phonetically identical to three other Chinese characters ‘cao-ni-ma’ 肏你妈 (fuck your mother),” Sze-Lorrain says, “but when translated literally into English, as you can see, it’s ‘grass-mud horse.’” The pun allowed Chinese citizens to subvert internet censors and demonstrate that obscenity can prompt political and social rebellion.

In literature, censored poems have often been the basis for rebellion and litigation. In Turkey, the works of poet Nazim Hikmet were deemed subversive and banned from the country. When Hikmet was imprisoned for sedition in 1938, artists worldwide campaigned for his release, while Turkish citizens circulated petitions and organized hunger strikes on his behalf. He was released from prison in 1950.

In the 1971 Supreme Court case Cohen v. California, 19-year-old Paul Robert Cohen was tried for wearing a jacket emblazoned with “Fuck the Draft” inside a Los Angeles courthouse. In his decision to uphold the First Amendment, Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan said, “One man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

This is especially true in poetry where, until about the second half of the 20th century, profanity was widely regarded as dirty and lowly, opposite the sublime to which “good” poetry should aspire.

Maybe it all comes back to authenticity, as Morgan Parker suggests. Taboos have shifted, and profanity’s expressive power has broadened accordingly. Disgust and rage and pain aren’t the only feelings that invoke the profane. When our workaday vocabulary fails to represent awe and reverence and glory, only a dirty word will suffice. And it’s then that fuck reveals itself to be an emphatic exultation.

In her poem “Please Wait (Or, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé,” Parker lists “Lavender, education, becoming other people / The fucking sky,” as examples of what out-pretties Ms. Knowles. The sky inspires humility and the same kind of blindsided awe implied when a reader says, “This poem’s fucking beautiful.”

Shit, too, is a pliant curse, as when Beyoncé sings, in “Flawless,” “This my shit, bow down bitches,” or when Parker writes, in the aforementioned poem, “But one day your shit will be unbelievably together.” It’s clear the shit is hers and hers alone, and it’s venerable shit at that.

“There’s ownership and celebration implied,” Parker tells me about that line, and no one who listens to “Flawless” or reads “Please Wait (Or…)” could disagree—that shit has been created and claimed and glorified. When “fuck” and “shit” are expressions of awe, whether in poetry or in life, they realize their full potential as lowly words. As the profane encompasses the sublime, the old dynamic shifts, and pain and fear cease to exist, if only for a moment, or an iamb. In their wake, there’s only that ineffable fuck.

Originally Published: March 19th, 2018

Claire Luchette is a writer from Chicago.