Dear Gentle, Bleepin' Reader,
A while back, Heffalumps deplored the coarsening of our culture. Citing ads for a "wide-ass" fan and the popular movie "Kick Ass," I begged, all of us, including your self-righteously indignant scribe, to swear less and cut back on obscenities in our speech and writing. Have you forgotten? Well, bleep you and all of your progeny!
I wasn't upset for religious reasons. If God couldn't take a few cuss words or withstand a few F bombs, the Almighty would be KO'ed by Snooki and the Situation of the TV reality show "Jersey Shore." KO'ed's too violent an image? Mea culpa. I'll go F myself.
Piety wasn't jerking my chains (though in life, not art, I don't think it's a bad idea to pass on swearing when it might offend someone's faith). I was angered by the lack of respect, civility and creativity in so much of our "real" and artistic life. Hearing my four-year-old great nephew Aiden use the word "bitch," made me feel like "The Catcher in the Rye's" Holden Caulfield when he sees "fuck you" written all over a playground. (His mother had a talk with Aiden about "good" and "bad" words.) And, after sitting through one too many movies featuring wide-assed characters with the wit of newts, where F bombs flowed like napalm, I switched genres. I turned to TV shows like "Mad Men," "Modern Family," "30 Rock," and "Dexter," for drama, comedy, story-telling and most of all, characters that I cared about.
What the f? You don't agree with everything I've said? You (insert your favorite epithet)!
I still deplore gratuitously crude or violent language in life and in art. But, as a poet and writer, I have, and continue to, support our right to free speech and expression. Last month, Patrick B. Pexton, ombudsman of "The Washington Post," wrote a compelling column "Profanity in the Post," on what he called "a war of words." The column which appeared in the "Post" dealt with the issues of what curse words or obscenities should be published in "The Washington Post." Many of the paper's writers, Pexton said, want to be able, at times, to use words such as "hell" or "bitch" in their stories. On the other side of the issue, "Marcus Brauchili, executive editor of the Post, and other editors...say there is usually a way to indicate foul language without, in fact, using it," Pexton writes.
To show what the "war of words" is about, Pexton cites two examples of language in two stories by Dan Zak, a "Washington Post" style writer, that was deemed too racy to be published in the Post. One is this delicious bit by Zak about a Westminster Dog Show winner: "After winning 'best in show' from the Westminster Kennel Club, a dog has every right to get cranky, to go diva, to not sit, to not stay. But over the past 24 hours, as paparazzi have trailed her around New York, Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind has borne her title with quiet dignity and grace. This bitch isn't acting like one."
What a bitch! I wish I'd written that! There are many times where it would be inappropriate to use the word "bitch." If used inappropriately the word is disrespectful and sexist. But, I swear on my dog-eared 1970's edition of "Our Bodies, Ourselves": I don't see why Zak's description of Grand Champion Foxcliffe Hickory Wind wasn't published in the Post. Wind isn't a human mom or wife, she's a female dog. Not only that. With the paparazzi hounding her, the pooch can't lead a normal dog's life. Why shouldn't the word "bitch" be used when writing about Wind? I gotta stop before my inner diva comes out!
Pexton quotes another example of one of Zak's stories where the language was altered. The story was part of a series that the Post runs from time to time called "Night Lives." In this story, Zak rode along with paramedics as they worked at night. "The emergency workers were called to a dive bar and came upon a man bleeding from a fight in which broken beer bottles were used," Pexton writes, " Zak's 'Someone beat the hell out of this guy,' was changed to 'He has been badly beaten.'"
Not only did "someone beat the hell out of this," some editor beat the hell out of Zak's compelling language. I'm no fan of stinking the joint up with gratuitous "hells"; but in this case, without the "hell," the writing becomes disembodied.
Generally, writing in life and in art is more effective-more powerful-without obscenity or swearing. But, there are always the exceptions that prove the rule. There are times where life and art would be meaningless-without a pulse-without obscene or curse words. A few years ago, Dick Cheney, then vice president of the United States, publicly told Sen. Pat Leahy to go "fuck himself." Fortunately, "The Washington Post," in its story about this, included the obscenity. The impact of the vice-president telling a senator to go "fuck himself" on the floor of the Senate, would have been greatly diminished if the Post had left out the F-word.
Much of the time, I think, poetry is better without obscenities. True, as I once heard the great poet Cornelius Eady say, "you can write First Amendment poems."
We can write poems filled to the brim with F-bombs, blow jobs, assholes and other crude words. Yet most of the time this poetry is bleepin' bad.
Except when such obscenities are essential to the poem. Can you imagine how bowdlerized Ginsberg's "Howl" would have been without the lines: "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy..."?
Should we swear and be obscene, when nothing else will make our writing good or true? Why the f not?