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I Swear That be Poetry

I Swear That be Poetry

Parental Guidance Warning: This post is looking at the use of swear words in poetry so, if the use of those words bothers you, you may wish to skip reading this one and come back next week for what is my 100th Blog Post, which I promise won't have a swear word in sight :)

The P Word

Cuss words and obscenities have traditionally been used fairly sparingly but in more recent times they have inched into page poetry and exploded like a Tyrannosaurus with a splitting headache's worth of rage into performance poetry. Is this a good thing? Discuss (30 marks).

Learning from the Master

Shakespeare used some very colourful language in his plays — words that seem tame to modern ears where equivalently wicked in the sixteenth century.

He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon and baptised there on 26 April 1564. His actual date of birth remains unknown, but is traditionally observed on 23 April, Saint George's Day. This date, which can be traced back to an 18th-century scholar's mistake, has proved appealing to biographers because Shakespeare died on 23 April.
(from the Wikipedia article on William Shakespeare)

I'll return to the c-word towards the end of this post, but Shakespeare seems to have enjoyed using it, as can be seen in the following two examples.

Malvolio: [Picking up the letter] By my life, this is my lady's hand: these be her very C's, her U's, and her T's, and thus makes she her great P's. It is in contempt of question her hand.
(source: Birkhall's Miscellany extract from Twelfth Night, Act 2 Scene 5, Olivia’s garden)

Another reference to the C-word comes in ‘Hamlet,’ of all places. In this play Hamlet speaks of “country matters” when trying to lay his head down in the lap of Ophelia. A clear pun on the word.

Sweetness and Light

I was a sweet-tongued child, brought up by parents who don't swear and whose grandparents didn't swear either. The only time I heard swearing was when an aunt who used the word ‘bloody’ a dozen times per minute came to visit. I have a strange recollection of being at a mother and toddler group (I must have been 3 or 4 years old I guess) and one lady used the word ‘arse’. The host remarked on how large my eyes had gone at that word!

By the time I reached my teenage years I was a foul-mouthed child at school. Everything was fucking this or fucking that; I didn't give a shit. This persisted into my university days. I don't remember making any conscious decision to refine my language but somewhere down the road I obviously did. The only swear words I utter aloud these days are when I walk into a wall or door, which releases a knee-jerk utterance of “For fuck’s sake!”

I do believe that swear words do have a place in poetry. I do think the performance poets do tend to overuse them, plosively scattering them into every line, but it certainly does ramp up the audience and raise the temperature of the piece being performed. In page poetry I sometimes think expletives are being used just to signpost, ‘look at me, I'm a edgy modern poet’ (who doesn't give two hoots about grammar), but other times when it serves the poetry more than the poet, it can be very effective indeed.

Who’s Afraid?

Paul: You’re not afraid of the work ‘fuck’. Discuss.

Jonathan: I think a lot of this has to do with Larkin having been one of the first significant poets I was exposed to. I hope where the word is used in the poems it isn’t artless, that it’s to do with how it plays off against what’s around it. It can help with giving a sense of power and a sense of the persona, as in ‘View of Valleys Village from a Hill’: ‘From here, I could reach down//and fuck with them.’ It can also create humour of course, as in ‘View of Valleys High Street through a Café Window’: ‘Brollies bob above each head/like thought balloons, if everyone were thinking,/Fuck me, it’s raining.’ And the ending of ‘Flamingos’ – ‘Fuck that, you say, Let’s all be fabulous’ – is the line of mine that I most get said back to me by readers. Before the book came out, I have to say that my mother asked me to take out all the swear words, but I didn’t see how it could be done

(from An Interview with Jonathan Edwards)

I use swear words very little in my poems: As I search my poetry folder for swear words I discover:

  • This line in a poem titled Suet Pudding and Misty Skies, certainly written in my early years of university in Wales: The country needs an extended transport network
    to maintain economic growth.
    Fuck the environment.
    We can't damage it
    if it is no longer there. I know I wrote that piece after reading the essay England Your England by George Orwell
  • In the first chapter of my short story in verse sequence I call a heavy breather on the end of the phone a bastard
  • In the final chapter the protagonist uses fuck to the face of his ex-Mother-In-Law, but I imagine he did before she was his former MIL
  • after completing chemotherapy and radiotherapy and landing in remission (where I still am) I wrote a gangsta rap poem that, by virtue of being written in that form, used swear words to indicate how done with cancer I was
  • in hour 17 of a 24 hour poetry writing marathon last year, my response about surviving cancer used the f-bomb towards the end
  • In my file of random jottings I wrote the following ‘They can read the time/ off me fuckin’ watch / from outer space!” ... I assume if somebody is spying on me from outer space I should be glad they've found nothing more exciting than what my wrist watch says
  • a poem I wrote in response to a friend having recently had a baby reveals that babies have very foul mouths (see below)
  • And finally, I hurled a stone of a poem ending with the f-bomb at an anthology submission window just the other day

But 8 poems with sweary words in them covering 28 years of writing poetry doesn't strike me as too bad.

Baby's First Bath Time

I'm drowning
you bastard
get me out of here
you mongoose
there are no nerves in your elbow
can't you hear
I'm in pain
bloody blisters
I can feel them forming
it's fucking burning
and I'm normally
such a sweet tempered boy.

(poem by Giles L. Turnbull)

Rule #1: DO Not Talk About Swearing in Poetry Club

Sometimes you have to say it:

Fuck them all.

Yes fuck them all--

the artsy posers,

the office blowhards

and brown-nosers;

Fuck the type who gets the job done

and the type who stands on principle;

the down-to-earth and understated;

the overhyped and underrated;
(from Fight Song by Deborah Garrison)

I've never noticed swearing following any strict gender lines. The stereotypical image is of men on building sites and in military careers, effing and blinding but I suspect as much coarse language gets uttered when girls get together to chinwag. As poetic human beings, do we feel a need to have an arsenal of swear words with which to cuss out the politicians and presidents, to wow our audiences and stiffen our backbones? Fair enough if it's the trait of a character's speech, but if not it needs to be there for significance to the story line.

The Times They Are A Changing

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, God knows
Anything goes
Good authors, too, who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose
Anything goes
(The Cole Porter Songbook: Anything Goes from Genius Lyrics)

I reckon that the majority of art — written, visual, audible, tactile — aims to be at least a little bit disruptive. Artists of any genre want to disrupt regular routines to make the audience pay attention and think, regardless of whether there is one person or a million people observing. ‘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.’ (A quote from an article by Michael Adams in the Boston Globe, see below).

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.”
(The Boston Globe, The Poetry of Profundity)

I blame the Parents

Are the parents to blame for their children's bad language, or does every new generation need to find stronger and stronger ways to let their parents and grandparents know they are not impressed with the world they've been left? Discuss (30 marks)

Listen to Philip Larkin reading This Be The Verse, a poem beloved of school age kids who relish a ‘serious poet’ swearing.

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.
(This Be the Verse by Philip Larkin from the Poetry Foundation website)

The History Behind the Words

Please be warned; as far as offensive words go, you are entering a hardhat area.
(from Kate’s Journal on Whores of Yore, see below)

We've already seen William Shakespeare playing around with what, I've heard many times people saying is the worst swear word of all, cunt. But this is, in fact, a word with an intriguing history. I became aware of an article about its use on the website Whores of Yore when it was mentioned by a Facebook writer friend.

I love the word cunt. I love everything about it. Not just the signified vulva, vagina and pudendum (which are all kinds of cunty goodness and will be returned to shortly), but the actual oral and visual signalled sign of cunt. I love its simple monosyllabic form. I adore that the first three letters (c u n) are basically all the same chalice shape rolling though the word until they are stopped in their ramble by the plosive T at the end.  I love the forceful grunt of the C and the T sandwiching the softer UN sounds, enabling one to spit the word out like a bullet, or extend the un and roll it around your mouth for dramatic effect; cuuuuuuuuuuuunt! I love it because its deliciously dirty, endlessly funny and, like an auditory exclamation mark, is capable of stopping a conversation in its tracks)
(Sadly I can't tell who to attribute that to, other than to say it is by Kate and comes from this article, ‘A Nasty Name for a Nasty Thing’: A History of Cunt on Kate’s Journal on the Whores of Yore website.

I especially enjoyed reading the etymology section of the article. I love learning how words came into being. The way that words migrate across different countries and cross continents with their speakers.

Cunt is not slang; cunt is the original. [...] but, has cunt always been such an offensive word?

The simple answer to that is no. To the medieval mind, cunt is simply a descriptive word; a little bawdy perhaps (as cunts tend to be), but certainly not offensive. The fact that cunt would make into de Worde’s dictionary and medical texts shows how every day the word was.

Are You Chicken to use Swear Words in a Poem?

As the saying goes: less is more ... and the antonym is also correct: more is less. If you never use swear words in your poetry, try them out — drop them into your old poems if you don't want to write something new to see the result. If every word in your poem is a swear word, try downscaling them with less offensive language. Once everybody is writing mildly sweary poetry we can react against it being fucking bland ;)

Evidently Chickentown

The bloody pies are bloody old
The bloody chips are bloody cold
The bloody beer is bloody flat
The bloody flats have bloody rats
The bloody clocks are bloody wrong
The bloody days are bloody long
It bloody gets you bloody down
Evidently chicken town
(lyrics from from Evidently Chickentown by John Cooper Clarke on

The Worst Word in the World

I was told the worst word in the world by a junior school teacher when I must have been 10 years old. We were instructed never to use this word. What on earth is that word? Nice. as the saying goes, if you can't think of anything nice to say, don't say anything at all. If that's not a urging for you to swear your head off I don't know what is ;)


Published inPoetry


  1. Frances Browner Frances Browner

    Think I have one f word in my poetry. Must insert a few more. Thanks Giles, enjoyed this.

  2. Frances Browner Frances Browner

    Should say ….. there are tons in my prose!

    • Giles Giles

      I suspect in prose there are so many other words surrounding them that the swear words are somewhat cushioned. Lik in Chickentown, if every line in a poem has one then the swearing becomes the focus of the poem rather than just another word in the poem. I was due to see John Cooper Clarke a few days ago but it’s been rescheduled into July … the fucker! 😉

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