ABCs of Poetry: F is for F-Bombs

Posted by on May 16, 2019 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Poetry: F is for F-Bombs

Those tough Italian kids with the pretty names–DiOrio, DelVecchio, Policarpio–taught me to love poetry. If you told any one of them he had a pretty anything, you’d get a metaphor for your trouble: a knuckle sandwich; a brand new asshole; your ass kicked into next week. Of ass-onance they were overly fond, those Roman poets spouting their smoke rings out behind the junior high–smoke rings that were beautiful and true, and rhymed perfectly with the decrescendo O’s of their last names.

And f-bombs sprinkled their idiom like commas, like vowels, and there was a definite skill involved in dropping them–in the best places, at the perfect intervals, as adjectives, adverbs, nouns, copulas, gerunds–a virtuosity, really, that had everything to do with rhythm, prosody, anaphora, creative use of grammar, and many other tools in the poetry toolkit.

Take, for example, the f-bomb’s most basic and familiar usage, in the imperative mood, which, metrically speaking, is usually a spondee: FUCK-YOU. But there is also the trochaic variation with the stress on the first syllable–FUCK-you–whose music and meaning are subtly different from the spondaic version. Of course the rejoinder to the trochaic FUCK-you is always either an iamb–fuck-YOU–or an anapest–no, fuck-YOU. Needless to say, the f-bomb makes the study of poetic meter feel a lot more contemporary, sexy and powerful, and far less fusty, boring and old-fashioned than it ever was for those of us who were forced to learn it in the classroom all those effing years ago.

But don’t misunderstand me, I am not advocating the use of vulgar language in poetry. Well, not exactly. The thing is, one of the senses of vulgar is “of the vernacular,” or “of the common people,” and I DO advocate a poetry that speaks to the common people, that speaks like the common people, the common people whose speech is full of naturally occurring music and found poetry, and yes, vulgarities; the common people whom we poets need to keep trying to win back from their unhappy places of exile where they no longer read poetry, where they “die miserably everyday for lack of what is found there.” Which sucks big time.

Of course, it’s only relatively recently that the f-bomb began to appear in the poetic canon, even though the common people have been using it in the most poetic and sublime ways for centuries. Scour the poetical works of a great dead poet like Wordsworth, who was prolific as fuck, and you won’t find a single f-bomb. Believe me, I’ve looked. Of course, all those great dead poets were a product of their time–and of their language–just as we are a product of ours. But the times have changed and the language has changed–because the language is always changing, because the language is alive, it isn’t dead like those great dead poets–and it’s our job, as living poets, to make sure the language is as alive as we are. That being said, those great dead poets are still worth reading, because once they were as alive as you and me, and they had what we would call a handle on the verbal, dude. And we can still learn a buttload from them.

As for me, I’m pretty sure the first time I encountered an f-bomb in a famous poem was when I was reading Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems and I came across the little gem called “This Be the Verse,” whose first stanza is:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

I remember being surprised– that you could do that. And impressed– that he had. Larkin, after all, was a formalist. And a librarian. He’d won the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry, for God’s sake. And I couldn’t help wondering what the Queen thought about Larkin’s f-bombs exploding here and there among the tidily rhyming iambic tetrameter and pentameter stanzas. Then, a few pages on, I came across these opening lines from another famous poem of Larkin’s, “High Windows”:

When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise

I was shocked and delighted. And persuaded. And converted. Of course, it’s not shocking anymore to drop an f-bomb in a poem. In fact, it’s practically de rigueur. We find them all the time now in the works of poets and writers writing today. Not only that, but they’re everywhere in our music and our movies, in comedy and on cable and rolling off the tongues of adolescents and grandmothers alike. But still, how and when one deploys an f-bomb in a poem–creatively, discriminatingly, bravely, precisely, accurately, with no collateral damage to the poem’s tone, voice, music, imagery–that is still the work of a poet.

In Stephen Dunn’s “Decorum,” for example, the poet takes on exactly this question of how and when and where and whether or not to use the f-bomb in a poem. Here are the first six stanzas:

She wrote, “They were making love
up against a gymnasium wall,”
and another young woman in class,
serious enough to smile, said

“No, that’s fucking, they must
have been fucking,” to which many
agreed, pleased to have the proper fit
of word with act.

But an older woman, a wife, a mother,
famous in class for confusing grace
with decorum and carriage,
said the F-word would distract

the reader, sensationalize the poem.
“Why can’t what they were doing
just as easily be called making love?”
It was an intelligent complaint,

and the class proceeded to debate
what’s fucking, what’s making love,
and the importance of the context, tact,
the bon mot. I leaned toward those

who favored fucking; they were funnier
and seemed to have more experience
with the happy varieties of their subject…

I love this poem (it goes on for another seven stanzas) not least of all because it says–and says it so much better–what is taking me a thousand words to try to get across in this little essay, namely, that there are lots of considerations when choosing whether or not to drop an f-bomb in a poem, that the choice is no different from the other difficult choices we make in our poems, and that it comes with its attendant risks and benefits, ripples and waves and baggage.

Words are powerful. And the f-bomb, it could be argued, is one of the most powerful. As George Carlin said, “Fuck is a proud word. I am Fuck. Fuck of the Mountain.” It’s sort of a great and fearsome tyrant among words. But we all know it loses its power when used willy-nilly, excessively, profligately, unwisely. And where does it come from, anyway? I would have guessed fuck was related to fecund, from the Latin fecundus, meaning fruitful, fertile, productive. But Merriam-Webster says it’s either from the Dutch fokken, to breed (cattle), or the Swedish fokka, “to copulate.” First known use, 14th century. As an intransitive verb, Merriam-Webster goes on to say, its first sense, “to copulate,” is usually obscene. Its second sense as an intransitive verb, “to mess”–often used with “with”–is usually vulgar. As a transitive verb, it can be used interjectionally with an object, such as a personal or reflexive pronoun, to express anger, contempt or disgust. Again, usually obscene, according to Merriam-Webster. And finally, again as a transitive verb, there is the sense of “to deal with unfairly or harshly; cheat; screw.” Again, according to Merriam-Webster, usually vulgar. So when is an f-bomb not vulgar or obscene, you may be wondering. I’m not sure I can answer that for you. Maybe you can only answer that for yourself. But for me, to my ear, in my reading and writing, it’s not vulgar or obscene when it’s brilliant; when it’s perfect; when it’s employed with great skill. Virtuosity trumps vulgarity; poetry trumps obscenity. At least in my book.

Paul Hostovsky’s most recent book of poetry is Late for the Gratitude Meeting (Kelsay Books, 2019). His poems have won a Pushcart Prize, two Best of the Net awards, the FutureCycle Poetry Book Prize, and have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter. Visit his website.