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.”
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...