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Ideas | Marshall Sloane

The poetry of profanity

Heather Hopp-Bruce

There are seven states (including Massachusetts, of course) where the use of profanity is still a crime. Which, when you think about it, is pretty gosh darn ridiculous.

Ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples forged and honed many of our current set of swears, and they’ve been valuable tools of human expression ever since. The Romans and Greeks used them in literature. Shakespeare leaned on them heavily, too.

Michael Adams, a professor at Indiana University Bloomington, says we’re living through a golden Age of Profanity, where the use of curses is both unprecedentedly creative and remarkably expressive, particularly in verse. That’s a damn good thing, argues Adams, author of the new book “In Praise of Profanity.”


Ideas spoke with Adams by phone from his home in Bloomington, Ind., about the poetry of the profane. Below is an edited excerpt.

IDEAS: What’s so compelling about the poetic value of profanity?

ADAMS: When you think about sitting down and writing a poem, you may have an idea that you want to communicate in the poem, but a lot of what you’re playing with is the sound of the language. In everyday speech, we don’t have a lot of time for that. We don’t have the time to worry in a conversation about the pleasure aspect of sound. Profanity serves the purpose of being a type of poetry that fulfills our urge to say words that sound a certain way. They can be a pleasure to speak, but there is also a forcefulness of profanity in certain situations. In some cases, we just enjoy saying those words. It depends a lot on the speaker’s intention and context. There are different poetic values that you can draw out of profanity in different settings.

IDEAS: Why don’t people more often connect profanity with poetry?


ADAMS: We teach poetry in school the exact opposite way we should. What classes tend to do is to say poets are exceptional speakers and poetry is exceptional discourse. We should be teaching kids poetry from their experience in everyday speech. Obviously, kids shouldn’t use profanity, but all of that exceptional, expressive, playful language we use is the basis for the higher art of poetry. We are almost completely unaware of how interesting we are or how interesting our speech can be.

IDEAS: Yet there isn’t much profanity in the canon of Western poetry — at least not the canon you find in high schools.

ADAMS: The most famous example is “This be the Verse” by Philip Larkin. The poet goes for the element of surprise by starting the poem with profanity. That is a way to orient the seriousness of the poem, especially since it was written in the 1950s. Larkin’s work is different from “The Ramble in St. James Park” by Phillip Rochester. Rochester created an image that was just meant for people to take pleasure in. Even if he creates an obscene image, it has no real purpose other than conjuring up an image in people’s minds that would be fun for them to think about.

Poetry is a very oral art. It is meant to be read as though you are speaking it out loud to yourself. That is where the fun is. It does not make a difference whether the profanity is being used to express anger or playfulness, for profanity, when used, is always being a little disruptive to the norms of poetry. That’s the poetic value.


IDEAS: Profanity — its use and restrictions — seem central to a lot of script writing.

ADAMS: A show I mention in the book is “Californication.” The show is obsessively focussed on Hank Moody, a very complicated and vexed character. It is a really unusual show, so if you come up with an idiosyncratic show, you may also find some idiosyncratic uses for profanity. Profanity becomes an emblem of what is special or different about that show. Two other examples are “Modern Family” and “The Sopranos.” They are different genres of television shows, so the attitude toward profanity in “Modern Family” is going to be comedic, while ”The Sopranos” is very much a drama. I think that one of the reasons we find profanity useful is that we can bend it to our purposes in an almost endless variety of contexts. Television, like literature or common speech, represents that truth about profanity: It is over the top expressive.

IDEAS: There are also inescapable power dynamics at play with profanity, which are easy to overlook.

ADAMS: It comes down to whether or not people will let you get away with using profanity. It’s not that there’s a rule against it, but it is a symbol of your authority if you can use profanity in certain circumstances where you are talking to people subordinate or junior to you. Some people will get to swear in public situations, and some people don’t.


In the book, I use the example of Vice President Cheney swearing quite loudly at the senior Senator Patrick Leahy in 2004. In that situation, he had both personal and institutional power, so if he was really annoyed by Leahy, he could use profanity. Nobody could say, “Well Vice President Cheney you just can’t talk like that,” since his answer would be, “I damn well can.”

IDEAS: What do normal people do in order to get away with using profanity?

ADAMS: If something is taboo, you have to come up with something that you are allowed to say. The euphemism replaces what you aren’t allowed to say. Since we are allowed to use profanity more, euphemism is less socially important than it used to be. Some of those euphemisms can be just as poetic as the profane terms, maybe even more. One example is a Jesus Christ euphemism: Jiminy Cricket. If you are looking for something that is fun to say, just say Jiminy Cricket.

IDEAS: Is overuse abuse?

ADAMS: There has to be a limit of society’s comfort with profanity or we lose the expressiveness of the language. There are people using profanity so much that profane words become inexpressive. They almost become repetitive dribble, but I think that people’s ears are very well calibrated to save profanity from overuse.

IDEAS: Will our Age of Profanity lead to the creation of new curse words?

ADAMS: Profanity has a small vocabulary. Now, I am not going to say that we won’t come up with new profanity, but we are much less likely to come up with new profanity than we are to come up with new slang. So we have to treasure the vocabulary which exists and keep it expressive in a way that we don’t for slang.


Marshall Sloane can be reached at marshall.sloane@globe.com.