Monday, November 26, 2007


I've been told that I use more short words than I ought to. There's some justice in this charge, but it's not something that troubles me overmuch. I can turn it off as required (e.g. while serving the first class passengers onboard the train) and tend to only give my stevedore's mouth free rein in comfortable situations and/or when under the influence of strong drink. It also, contrary to parental warnings, does not seem to have had a deleterious effect on the breadth and depth of my vocabulary. The other thing I'm often accused of is using too many big words...

Turns out I probably swear a lot because I've been immersed in a number of all- or mostly-male environments in my life (sports teams, boarding school, university dorm, airline cargo), and men swear more, on average than women. So says Steven Pinker, among many other fascinating things, in a fifty-page chapter on bad language in his new book The Stuff of Thought.

I was particularly interested in this chapter because swearing is something I've thought about--and done--a lot as a writer. My grandmother once lamented my use of "all those words" in my book, and Ludicrous Parole has a fair bit of dirty diction too. A reading host once suggested to me that I "choose other poems" the next time I read at that venue, because some of the regular audience members probably didn't appreciate my salty tongue. I had a poem about two dogs fucking, read during a taped interview on CBC, not broadcast. And one of the conditions imposed upon me in the CBC Poetry Faceoff a couple years ago was that I couldn't use any "blue language"--a restriction I semi-circumvented by hiding the word "fucking" in an acrostic. I haven't done this to be shocking--Christ knows how hard it is to shock any intelligent, educated person these days--but out of a conviction that in certain circumstances, less pungent word choices would be the artistic equivalent of a lie. (Which isn't to say that I tell "the Truth" in my poems, but that poetry requires a certain verbal fidelity that can't be faked.) Fucks and shits and cunts and assholes permeate the speech of several communities in which I've been immersed; to write about these folk and these places whilst omitting such characteristic ejaculations would be to misrepresent them.

I wrote about this a couple of years ago for Quill & Quire. The editor who worked on the piece with me advised as follows:

I wanted to cut one clause from one line: "... and from Dan Rintoul, who told me about moonshine that tasted like old cunts and boxing gloves...." I want to cut it because it's so spectacularly crude that it seems to interupt the flow of the piece, or at least it did for me. We also have a lot of genteel readers, so I figured that if it jarred me it would probably give them a heart attack. I would leave the second "cunt" in, though, and all the other insults and stuff, but the boxing-glove analogy just seemed too much.

I agreed to the deletion because this was far from a censorious edit on the whole, but when I gave the U of T an artist's statement for their website, I gave them the original version because I still thought the line made a valid and vital point.

I was glad, then, to encounter the following statement from Pinker, whose acumen I hold in the highest regard:

The responsibility of writers is to give a "just and lively image of human nature," and that includes portraying a character's language realistically when their art calls for it. When Norman Mailer wrote his true-to-life novel about World War II, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, he knew it would be a betrayal of his depiction of the soldiers to have them speak without swearing. His compromise with the sensibilities of the day was to have them use the pseudo-epithet fug. (When Dorothy Parker met him she said, "So you're the man who doesn't know how to spell fuck.") Sadly, this prissiness is not a thing of the past. Some public television stations today are afraid to broadcast Martin Scorsese's documentary on the history of the blues and Ken Burns's documentary on World War II because of the salty language in their interviews with musicians and soldiers. The prohibition against swearing in broadcast media makes artists and historians into liars, and subverts the responsibility of grown-ups to learn how life is lived in worlds distant from their own.

Hear, hear! Pinker also talks at length about the sonic values and "phonetic symbolism" of swear words. He quotes the linguist Geoffrey Hughes:

While it may be objected, quite validly, that most swearing makes no attempt at originality, ... certain affinities with poetry can be observed. In both fields the language used is highly charged and very metaphorical; extreme, pointed effects are created by alliteration or by playing off different registers of the word-hoard against each other, and rhythm is very important.

Indeed. I don't think you can tease my predilection for les mots maudits from my addiction to concrete Anglo-Saxon diction and the alliterative effects such language affords. Some of my poems I think of as the sort of thing Hopkins might have written had he been for the devil instead of for God.

Pinker concludes the chapter most eloquently:

When used judiciously, swearing can be hilarious, poignant, and uncannily descriptive. More than any other form of language, it recruits our expressive faculties to the fullest: the combinatorial power of syntax; the evocativeness of metaphor; the pleasure of alliteration, meter, and rhyme; and the emotional charge of our attitudes, both thinkable and unthinkable. It engages the full expanse of the brain: left and right, high and low, ancient and modern. Shakespeare, no stranger to earthy imprecations himself, had Caliban speak for the entire human race when he said, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."

Which is one of the epigrams to Ludicrous Parole. See, Grammy, I knew what I was doing! Fuckin' rights.

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