The Profanity Blahs, Part 1 [They fuck you up, your Under and Grad.]
America loves blue, blue jeans, that lil blue pil, and blue toilet water, and American poets are famously fond of packaging and repackaging one of our deepest human impulses, the Blues; and, unfortunately, it has become easily common and popular to share the Blues with tourists and not the Burden of the Blues with those who deserve to be slapped across the face until they actually turn blue. Most poets are taught to copy or to merely tell the Blues, usually in quatrains, but very few of them know how to creatively “give” the Blues also known as causing the reader to catch a case of the Blues. Thus, much of what passes for contemporary Blues poetry reads like sheet music and sounds, like it or not, close to what Funkadelic called “the Blahs” (a form of the disco-Blues) on its 1979 release Uncle Jam Wants You. If I recall correctly, Charlie Brown (of the Peanuts) was my first encounter with a representation of a non-black variety of the Blues which is, of course, why they added later Snoopy—to counter the overdose of animated Depression—with Cool, but the cool could not be human and the cool could not be black. Every blue jean’d, ring around the ankle so-called American hipster has Snoopy to thank and Snoopy’s cool has Miles Davis to thank and Miles Davis’s Some Kind of Blue has the Blues to thank. An easily nameable and traceable line until Richard Nixon, Vietnam and Watergate happened and I decided (not long after) that this particular Presidential form of the Blues needed its own name, Whiteache. Sometime later I saw Ben Shahn’s drawing of Robert Oppenheimer, which revealed the agony and guilt Whiteache could contain so by the time I got to T.S. Eliot, I was baffled by the amount of restraint built into J. Alfred Prufock’s particular brand of impotent Blues, which has been improperly diagnosed—by the stethascopes of poetry criticism—as balanced indecisiveness. Eliot, like so many other poets I encountered in school, seemed to lack the modern, essential survival strategy and Blues/Whiteache repellent known as “Just Fuck It.” Imagine, if you will––
In the room the women come and go
Talking shit about Michelangelo.
In “Facing It,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s most famous poem, the word “dammit” perfectly expresses the inner tug of war between Blues acceptance and Blue resistance in the speaker who is also a former soldier. Profanity is an outlaw in American Poetry, but it might just be our last hope for causing the Blues and for cutting through the smoke screen of over-poeticizing, creative cover story and spin—because as we now know that metaphor is frequently used as the new artistic equivalent of non transparency and secrecy in both racial and nonracial work. Who, among us, has not returned home from a productive semester of university study, full of theory and philosophy, wearing a university sweatshirt, only to enter a conversation with an old friend who did not attend college, only to be stopped dead in our well-informed, linguistic tracks by a well-placed, “Fuck all that!”
What follows, then, are a few examples of the profanity I have recently used and the moments or poetry situations I have used them in, mostly to myself, when I feel the literary world about to serve me a plate of White Blues ache, sometimes—too—in Coloredface. I admit: cussin’, cursing or swearing things away probably won’t land you a metric footlocker in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences but it will limit the number of human forgeries you will undoubtedly spend much of your public life dodging and explaining yourself to. I also admit: when taken orally, profanity is a very percussive form of self-prescribed, non-prescription drug, a placebo like a mug, and although none of the following circumstances are listed as literary advice, I do challenge the reader to join me, real talk, in my pursuit of discovering an ‘Ezz-thethic” (See Max Roach + 4) more panther and lash than Simple and weary.
1 __________ “Hurt in the World”
About ten years ago the poetry editor of one of the major publishing houses—after seeing poems in Best American Poetry 1997 and 2001—solicited my first manuscript and held onto it for more than a year before sending me a rejection letter. In addition to citing, maybe, six or seven poems that held her-his interest, the letter also said, “I had hoped to find more poems about the poet being hurt in the world.” The Auden-Yeats reference was not lost on me and I was familiar with the trend of pain in Poetry of Witness as well as the view, by certain editors, of what was and was not allowed in Contemporary African American Poetry. Hurt was “in” at the major publishing houses and that meant The Blues—even when it was masked or disguised in persona. The editor wanted some form of the Blues. And I didn’t have any, well, not a whole manuscript’s worth. Besides, when I was honest with myself about my cultural relationship to the Master’s tools, I actually saw myself as more of a Hurter poet than a Hurt poet. I immediately looked up the names of the other poets published by the Press (and yes quite a few of them were Hurt), made a list and wrote a Thank You note, making sure to mention that I was of the opinion that their catalog was filled with Hurt and that I was headed in the other direction—just to even the emotional field a bit. Translation: “Muthafuck Hurt in the World.”
2 That Poem Don’t Make No _____ Sense
The biggest hoax in American Poetry is the categorical agreement among poets on what is good and what is not. On the ground floor of this agreement is the poet’s trained ability to make a crucial distinction between poems that are well-written and poems that are poorly written. For example, in the Black Literary Community, Robert Hayden’s poem’s are considered (across the board) to be well-written and so are LeRoi Jones’ poems but enter the work of Amiri Baraka and a shift in craft-awareness occurs, immediately placing the average reader outside the regular realm of classroom criteria and unable to identify the merits of the poem. A poem like "Nightmare Bulshit Whirl" is a surreal Blues meant to give America the Blues and the only way the agreed rule of what is well-written works is when everyone has been made to agree, like sheeple, upon the same or similar set of standards and taste, socially and intellectually. Not only is this type of sameness the current King or Queen of all of our, one, literary landscape, it is also the glue that holds most, if not all, of our literary friendships together. Many poets, including me, have a lot of friends who are poets. We eat together, read together, workshop together, date, travel together, judge contests together, publish together, book-party together, AWP together, but rarely are there among our poetry intimates, other poets who do not openly adore our work. When is the last time you looked at a poem handed to you by a close friend and responded unfavorably. I do it all the time when reading poems in literary journals by people I don’t know, shaking my head, as if diving into the slow, Auden-esque floating wreck of shore crossing on the eve of War. I think I can handle it if I am told, by friend or foe, inside or outside of a workshop setting, “TSE, that poem don’t make no damn sense.”
Thomas Sayers Ellis grew up in Washington, D.C. and earned his MFA from Brown University. He is the author of Skin, Inc. (2013) and The Maverick Room (2005). He co-founded the Dark Room Collective in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and received a Whiting Award in 2005. Ellis has taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Case Western...