The Insipidity of Profanity in Poetry [An Essay]

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The Insipidity of Profanity in Poetry [An Essay]

Postby Wynn » Fri Oct 30, 2009 12:44 am

This is an essay I wrote for school. I hope you like it!

The Insipidity of Profanity in Poetry

Postmodern poets showcase many faults. They use mixed metaphors to force the impression of novelty; they write choppy phrases, ignoring the cadence of the language; they undermine poetic performance because they have a penchant for preaching; and they use poetry as a psychiatrist’s office. But one of the most trash-worthy faults of Postmodern poetry is the use of profanity. It is offensive to many, lacks force—or has too much force—and is inartistic.

Many people, based on various religious or moral beliefs, find profanity offensive. When profanity is used on television, for instance, many people object, forcing the station to block it with a beep and blur the curser’s mouth; or they set parental features on their televisions to block expletives out and replace them with tamer words. Here is an example in poetry that may be offensive:

Sometimes I do drink alone why not, who the fuck
are you to judge...

The use of profanity in this excerpt is problematic, because profanity limits a poem’s appeal. If one looks at some of the most popular poems through history (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, She Walks in Beauty, Dover Beach, How Do I Love Thee, etc.) he will find that they contain three essential qualities that make them popular, namely, poetic device, sentiments that many can relate to, and clean language. The above quoted has none of these, and so is doomed to the shadows.

Because profanity is heard so often, it can derail the train of poetic force. This abundance naturally weakens the effect of phrases in which four-letter words are used. This is true for any overly used phrase. For instance, “He was as pale as a ghost” is likely to pass by without much attention paid to it; in most cases, it is more effective to say, “He was very pale.” When one writes, “No wonder my throat feels sore now I feel like shit,” shit has no force because it is so common. Putting shit into the line didn’t introduce any more force into the line, which was the writer’s supposed purpose. A stale, ready-made, profane phrase is almost invariably evidence that there is an absence of original, first-hand experience in the poet.

Although the use of profanity in poetry can weaken its effects, in some instances, it draws too much attention to itself. Writers forget that many people try to keep a curse-free environment. By using expletives, they discourage many from reading lines like, “I’ve got that shit that those f**king bastards do down to a science.” After I read the the poem containing this line, the only thing I could remember was that the poem contained constant profanity! This is the opposite of what a word in a poem is supposed to do, namely, to enhance and to illuminate the whole, not obscure it. In this case, the four-letter words drown out the rest of the line. Reading the entire poem quoted above would show that swearing hides the possible specific meanings of the poem.

If it drowns out the possible specific areas of meaning in a poem, profanity is inartistic. Expletives defeat the poet’s purpose, which is to use language to reveal a larger shade of specific meaning. That is the key—profanity means so little. For example, if someone’s horse were stabbed on his way home, anyone could write “we didn’t know why the man did such a goddamned thing.” But can anyone write the following?

We assumed the man himself,
Or someone he had to obey,
Wanted us to get down,
And walk the rest of the way.

Not only does this express the same sentiment, but it also reveals a more profound, deep-rooted attitude of bewilderment in the poet, in the same instance giving the sense that the poet is saying, “somehow, it just had to be.” Using understatement like this catches the reader’s attention even more than profanity.

This lack of specificity is the worst fault of profanity. When one writes, “and / try to avoid the trucks and the shit that come at you,” what does shit even vaguely point to? One can only surmise that the poet did not know how to express herself—or even worse, did not even know what she was trying to express—and so inserted a “strong” word to say, “Oh! How I feel so!” instead of finding an apt metaphor to convince the reader. As John Ciardi says: “It is as if an actor found himself incapable of projecting his role, and had stepped out of character to tell the audience what his acting was intended to be about. In any theater seriously taken, such an action can call for nothing but tomatoes.”

A poet who truly knew his craft would not include profanity in his poetry. Since so many “poets” today do so, it is no wonder that poetry has lost so much respect in Postmodern times.
"Never trust a poet who can't construct a stanza."
— Clive James
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