Obscenity is an Art: defending profanity in poetry.

December 17, 2008 at 3:46 pm | Posted in poetry, school, writing | 4 Comments
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There’s an art to sh*t, f*ck, p*ss, c*nt, c*cksucker, motherf*cker, t*ts.

Since its conception art has battled society over what the artists saw as freedom of expression and what concerned leaders labeled as obscenity. Painters, playwrights, filmmakers, authors, and poets. All have suffered from a sensitive few that mount their soapboxes and claim to be society’s protectors.

These few have no sense of subtext; their creativity is oppressed by a narrow-mindedness designed to cull impurity before it might offend. They immediately declared photographer Bill Henson’s 2008 exhibit featuring photographs of naked children as pornographic. In 1957, these purity watchers slapped Allen Ginsberg with an obscenity trial for his poem “Howl”.

Freedom of speech (obscenity) – adopted as freedom of (obscene) expression by most artists – is the Fat Man in an artist’s arsenal, the target of censorship’s anti-proliferation campaigns. Henderson’s photographs depict vulnerability, children in the throes of life’s transitions. The nakedness is a nakedness of character. Ginsberg used strong sexual language, but was acquitted by the judge.

Understand: Obscenity itself is an art.

I will delve into obscenity in poetry because I have more experience with this art.

Curse words are part of every language in every era, evolving with every generation. In the 1900s it was crude to say “jeepers”. As early as our grandparent’s generation “dark meat” was used instead of the indecent word “thigh” to refer to parts of a chicken. In 1972, George Carlin defined the new profane generation in his satirical routine “Seven Dirty Words”. In it, Carlin stated that, actually, none of the words belong on the list.

“Those are the heavy seven,” said Carlin, “Those are the ones that will infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.”

Critics of profanity in poetry claim that the word choice shows a lack of creativity and point the offending poets in the direction of a thesaurus. This is a weak cure-all. It is solution that shows the offended’s near sightedness.

Curse words exist beyond the toe-stubbing expletive. They carry baggage other words can not claim to. Where does “gosh darn” register on a reader’s Richter scale reaction verses “shit”? The “stuff” hit the fan has little on the “shit” hit the fan.

Euphemisms are creative circumventions around obscenity, but they do not evoke the immediate, crass, empty images that follow the real deal.

In 2005 Shorewood High pulled a poem from their literary magazine entitled “My First Fuck”. The 17-year-old poet said the poem conveyed the disenchantment that girls feel when they are pressured into sex:

My First Fuck

sure he claims he loves me
and holds me oh so tight
he makes me believe this is special
that he can hold on all night
he claims he isn’t pressuring me
but his hand is down my pants
temptation rises and I give in
he turns over
checks the time
gets up and drives me home
no kiss goodnight
no I love you
and no telephone call

-Zoya Raskina

The deliberate title alone is a statement. If this poem were entitled “My First Time” or “The First Time I Made Love” neither replacement conveys the hollow disillusioned sex that “My First Fuck” does. The title is the poem; the rest of it, elaboration. Such is the power behind “fuck”.

Ginsberg’s “Howl” was also attacked for its representation of sex. The poem describes sex obscenely and explicitly: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, al-/cohol and cock and endless balls”. Howl’s descriptions were not casual. The sexually explicit lines which led to his trial criticized America’s rigid unnatural approach to sex.

Mark Twain vouched for profanity’s place in language, “Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Obviously, there are social situations where profanity should not be used. The poet must be aware of her audience. However, society should not condemn poets for simply using the language that packs its punch.
Allow me to point those soapbox persecutors in the direction of the truly profane. Genocide has murdered more than two million people in Uganda since 1962; Mexico is the deadliest place in the Americas for journalists as a result of the country’s drug war; since 1993 hundreds of women are missing or have been murdered in Ciudad Juàrez resulting in more than 300 unsolved murders.; in 1994 over half a million Tutsis were murdered by Hutu militia in 100 days.

We’re sick fucks, but don’t condemn me for saying it.

Put your soapbox to good use.


Written for my journalism class poetry beat.



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  1. Well written! Poetry is outside my comfort zone on most days, but this was a very good read. I agree with you on the impact of the swear words – My First Fuck is not equal to My First Sex or My First Romp in the Sack. It’s amazing how long some people will hold on to the belief that blinders on our children is the best way to raise them. Teach them to make good decisions, like when it is appropriate to use the word fuck, and they will be far less likely to make bad decisions.

    What I find funny is that the uptight people spend their time with this, and yet shows like Battlestar Galactica just replace it with “frak” and everything goes. “While you were frakking Starbuck”, “You mother-frakkers”, “what a frakking idiot”. Haha. No, LOL! 🙂

  2. I flip on the issue of “proxy” cuss words all the time. Sometimes I think that if you use “frak” or “snap” etc instead of fuck and co. there is really no difference. Frak is a swear word to you and thus it should carry the “omg-i-cant-believe-you-said-that” factor as well.

    On the other hand, “frak” does NOT carry the social context that fuck does which is the whole point of creating your own fluff profanity.

    >< I’d have to think about this further to pick a side.

    My favorite is the dubbing that networks do for cuss words. “Darn man!” when anyone with a beans worth of lipreading can tell it was “son of a bitch”. It’s pretty hilarious actually.

  3. I’ve always felt they provided a good in-between word. Useful for times you aren’t sure of the effect of using the real swear word, but still not appropriate when you’re around Grandma. Well, guess that depends on which Grandma. We don’t pay much attention to the fake ones around the house, but don’t let the kids use the real ones. Not really sure why.

  4. […] bookmarks tagged crass Obscenity is an Art: defending profanity in poetry… saved by 1 others     SinoMelo bookmarked on 12/18/08 | […]

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