In our daily language there is a group of words that are prohibited, secret, without clear meanings. We confide the impressions of our most brutal or subtle emotions and reactions to their magical ambiguities. They are evil words, and we utter them in a loud voice only when we are not in control of ourselves. In a confused way they reflect our intimacy: the explosions of our vitality light them up and the depressions of our spirit darken them. They constitute a sacred language like those of children, poetry, and sects. Each letter and syllable has a double life, at once luminous and obscure, that reveals and hides us. They are words that say nothing and say everything. Adolescents, when they want to appear like men, speak them in a hoarse voice. [. . . ] But these words are definitive and categorical, despite their ambiguities and the ease with which their meanings change. They are the bad words, the only living language in a world of anemic vocables. They are poetry within the reach of everyone. Octavio Paz (trans. Lysander Kemp)

I used to curse like a sailor. Literally. During my four (long) years in the U.S. Navy, every third word I uttered must have been a bad word. Sometimes the bad words had no meaning and served only as a place holder, as a substitute for “um.” Sometimes the words expressed pleasure, other times displeasure. The most beautiful construction for a sailor (especially one in the Deck Department, the one place where modern-day pirates can be found.) is “blank-blank days and a muthafuckin wake-up.” A sailor (especially one who thinks “NAVY” stands for “Never Again Volunteer Yourself”) is always counting down to some date. It could be the date you’re supposed to return back home from a 6-month WestPac cruise that takes you to Hong Kong, Sasebo, Yokusuma, Pusan, Signapore, Dubai, Bahrain, Perth, Hobart, and Oahu. This countdown starts as soon as the ship has unmoored and while Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” plays over the loudspeaker: 179 days and a muthafuckin wake-up. Though this is probably uttered sarcastically by BM2 Lifer, who is taking somewhat sadistic pleasure in the blank (because frightened) stares of his BootCamps (you are called “BootCamp” until you survive your first cruise, and those 3-month RimPacs don’t count.), who are too preoccupied with the uncertainty of being out to sea for 6 months to notice the stinging in their hands from handling the mooring lines. It could be the date of one’s (honorable, baby!) discharge from the military. When you get within two months of this date (which you could usually move up by saving your leave days; this was way before “stop-loss”; I mean “stop-loss” was in our contracts, but my eight years (4 active; 4 inactive) fell right between the first Gulf War and the Second.) you are considered “short.” When BM2 Lifer needs someone for the sidecrew to paint the waterline, you can say, “I ain’t doing shit.” And when he gets in your face and asks you to repeat what you just said, you kindly remind him, “I’m fuckin’ short.” It’s like immunity or something. The sweetest number in the countdown is nine days and a muthafuckin wake-up because that means you are (please forgive the non-political correctness of a poor sailor) a “single digit midget.” The last official bad word a sailor utters comes when he leaves the Shitty Kitty (a nickname for the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier; another name young sailors have for it is “home.”) for the last time. Instead of asking permission to leave the boat and go onshore, the sailor says to the Officer of the Watch (it helps if the Officer of the Watch is his own BM2 Lifer who has now been promoted to BM1 and with whom the sailor now shares mutual respect: one respecting the other for surviving not one but two WestPacs; one respecting the other for dedicating his life to the service and defense of his country.), “Request permission to get off this muthafucka.”
If bad words are the only living language, if they are poetry, then why are my poems so bereft of profanity? I don’t cuss nearly as much as I did when I was a foul-mouthed sailor, but it’s not like I don’t think about using profanity everyday. Yet in my first collection I use a bad word only once: “pero ya hace un chingo que no te veo, jefe.” The lack of bad words in my poetry reflects the lack of bad words in modern poetry, at least the modern poetry found in my bookcases. (Kasey Mohammed and the Flarfists are the exception that proves the rule. I think I mean that as a compliment.) One would be hard-pressed to find a bad word in Paz’s verse. So his statement could be rewritten, “Bad words are poetry within the reach of everyone, except poets.” Think of Wordsworth, who said he wanted to write in the voice of the common man. Don’t Rustics Curse? should be a critical question for the Wordsworth Circle. Even when a poet does use the F-word, it sounds more charming than controversial. Take Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” One could even call that line sweet. I guess Ginsberg could be considered controversial. “Fuck you and your atom bomb,” indeed. But his profanity seems acceptable because it is wrapped up in righteous protest. Bad words for a purpose. What about gratuitous profanity? One reason why bad words are out of the reach of poets could be the notion that in our secularized age poetry has replaced religion. Profanity was that language to be used outside of the temple. These new priests are still barring profanity from the temple of poetry. It could be that, or it could be the persistent belief that poetry should be written in beautiful language. WTF?
A poetic (read: unsound) syllogism:
Major Premise: “They [Bad Words] are poetry within the reach of everyone.” Paz
Minor Premise: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Frost
Conclusion: “Bad words get lost in translation.” Huerta
The translations of Catullus are an example of this. But let me talk about Hollywood movies in Spanish. It doesn’t matter if the movie is dubbed or subtitled, a bad word used as an interjection is always translated as ¡Maldición!, as if to explain there is a curse word being used here instead of translating the actual curse word. Then there is the Mexican word “Chingar,” to which Paz dedicates a whole chapter in The Labyrinth of Solitude. Some say the English translation of “chingar” is “fuck;” this would be true if “fuck” could hold within its four letters the tragedy and comedy that is the history of Mexico.
I feel I have to go now and put a bar of soap in my mouth because I said “fudge.”

Originally Published: September 27th, 2008

Javier O. Huerta's debut collection Some Clarifications y otros poemas (Arte Publico 2007) received the 31st Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. He is also the author of American Copia (2012). A graduate of the Bilingual MFA Program at UT El Paso, Huerta is currently a PhD student in the...

  1. September 27, 2008
     Joseph Hutchison

    Is "maldición" possible without transgression? Is transgression possible anymore? Paz made an aesthetic based on transgression, it seems to me. Certainly Celine. Later Ginsberg. Today Linh Dinh, maybe. But I wonder: is transgression possible anymore? I don't mean the adoption of contrarian positions. I mean real transgression–the gut level sense of violation that used to be possible. I read once that a reviewer of Aaron Copland's "Organ Symphony" wrote that "a man who could write this music could as easily commit murder." This seems idiotic now, but at the time must have registered a recognizable sense of transgression. Is such a reaction even possible today? "Piss Christ"? Maybe. But poetry? No no no no. Poetry can not transgress anymore. All the borders are open. All the taboos are gone. So what does Javier mean when he talks about soap and Catullus? Is he living in the past? Is he indulging in a bygone era's story? Without transgression, what do we have? A flailing. A failing. A fudging. An irrelevance?

  2. September 29, 2008
     Javier Huerta

    Thanks for commenting. I wanted to include the Navy ship as an example of a space in which the purpose of bad words isn't to transgress. In that space, bad words form an essential part of everyday language. I'm interested in the rhythm of bad words more than their shock value. I've always enjoyed the fact that linguists use examples like the following to discuss the possible rhythms of language: "tennefuckingssee." If you insert the "fucking" anywhere else it doesn't work. "Tefuckingnnessee" is not nearly as musical. That's why I enjoy the construction of the sailor's countdown.
    "twenty-nine days and a muthafuckin wake-up"
    not: "twenty-muthafuckin-nine days and a wake-up"
    not: "twenty-nine muthafuckin days and a wake-up"
    not: "twenty-nine days muthafuckin and a wake-up"
    not: "twenty-nine days and muthafuckin a wake-up"
    not: "twenty-nine days and a wake-muthafuckin-up"
    The trochaic rhythm sounds most appealing in the first example. The sailor knows this. The musicality of bad words is such an important aspect of everyday rhythm, and I just don't think we (as poets) have explored that nearly enough.

  3. September 30, 2008
     David Shapiro

    My mother a Reichian and communist used to say to me that "bad words" were "love words," and
    so I grew up learning about the body from Joyce's soliloquy and Penelope's and Tenderness.
    Onew day Allen Ginsberg took us out to lunch, or we took him out. I was sixteen or so and
    my mother was entranced. She asked him about opoverty in India, since he had just been
    there. He said, Mrs Shapiro, they're still fucking in the dust. I waited to see my mother
    flinch. She did not. When we left I said: Well, you didn't seem to mind HIS use of "bad words."
    She said, still in a trance, it';s different when he uses them.
    Kenneth Koch in class once said of the word fuck with his sweet stutter:
    It's very hard to use wordfs that may emnbarass you, like fffuck. Allen
    Ginsberg can use fffuck, but I haven't really. He later wrote a beautiful poem
    to orgasms. I have a sentence: And the centuyry I live in turns out to be the century
    of infibgulation and fuck.
    OSay if a painter rather than painting the word The painted the word Fuck.
    I found some people liked a poem of mine inspired by a Picasso nude. I put in
    phrases like cunt and spine or sucked. I was told it was my best poem by Timothy Lieu.
    But I purposely decided to reprint it when it wouldn't seem as if I were a painter
    suddenly painting the word Fuck. Also, I noticed like anyone else that the words
    --despite them being pretty and sensual and, at least for me, pointedf(haha)
    didn';t really make it up to Picasso's painting--Sleeping Woman in l932 wherte he has almost nothing
    but a few charcoal lines on a white or unpainted canvas. I don't mind saying
    that I learned most of the facts of love from the Penelope soliloquy, and so I
    'have to bend my knees to the words that are around us. Phillip Lopate
    and Kenneth Koch both felt thayt Rudy Burckhardt had too many nudes imn his work.
    Kenneth said his own analyst had told him to get rid of "gratutitous oranges.,"
    I have written a poem only of oranges. But to go back, is it really better
    to know that the Polish ruudder in Frank's hands was Larry Rivers's penis. I think
    if Frank had wanted to he could. In some places like the end of Biotherm
    certain words turn wild =as if Turner were in the snow.
    Maybe if we all treated every word as if it were an epithet (Mayakopvsky) we
    would be fine. And if you look at Jakobson he's very interested in what goes first, what goes second
    in morphology. So I love all those discvriminations of mothgerfucka even more than
    in the sailor. All this was investigated by Proust and others and it was a study of
    Pushkin, thgat great pornographer, that also led to J's great studies of folklore,
    and why tic is less dark than toc, why we don';t say tic tock,m tock tic, why I like Ike
    is so moving but Bush Mother doesn't do it like Johns's title Bush Baby which is not about
    the President but is a nocturnal anaimal.
    Bad words are nocturnal animals. Bad words is such a good word because its
    primary antithetical and like an animalist fuck in the good pages, I mean the good pages,
    Or what is called The good parts. If a poet isn';tr very attuned to the weight of a big word like
    'fuck or screw, he shoulkd abandon language, Presidents have.
    To sum up, there are no bad words, but thinking makes them so.
    My student writes" Words are such toys."
    Between bad words and good words, oral and aural, we live and die.
    Excuse th typos. A typoo is like a bad word in scholarly company, Forgive!

  4. October 1, 2008
     Lavinia Greenlaw

    Thank you for this, Javier; it has had me thinking for days.
    Transgression has accumulated so many conventions that when explicit, it is more like dance steps or special effects. It is the thing we must imagine that shocks and disturbs, and that's why poetry can still do it: not in the words it uses but how. We think we can, and will, write about anything but we are, most of us, constrained by a desire for elegance and dignity - much more so than we believe. When did you last read a poem that not only impressed and/or moved you, but disturbed you too?
    I agree about the importance of everyday rhythms, not the what but the how: 'twenty-nine days and a muthafuckin wake-up'. Your experiment reminded me of trying to get students to trust their ear when learning to scan a poem. You could ask them where they would insert the 'muthafuckin' and I bet most would put it in the right place.
    Sometimes the trangressive utterance is simple exorbitance, but that too works best when it has music. The British board of censors once looked over a script in which a woman shouted at a man: 'Pig! Pig! Pig! Pig! Pig!' Their instruction to the writer was 'Delete three pigs.'
    You can hear exactly why it had to five, why four would have been too few and six too many.
    Pig, pig. Doesn't really do it for me.