Bad Language Again: The Unexamined Assumptions of Formalist Decorum

by Joseph S. Salemi

Sometimes I teach Greek and Latin etymology at Hunter College in New York. Part of the coursework involves learning to write the Greek alphabet in both the capital and small forms. One day I had a particularly trying time with a class as I attempted to initiate them into the arcana of the Greek lower-case letters. There’s much to remember: rough breathings, diphthongs, initial and terminal sigma, the crucial difference between nu and upsilon, the swirl of delta and zeta. It was all going rather slowly and the class, in my opinion, was just not concentrating. By the time we got to the last letter, omega, I was out of patience with them. No one seemed able to draw omega properly. It should look like a small curvaceous w, but the class was having as little luck with this letter as it had with the rest of the alphabet.

I was frustrated, tired, and annoyed at the class’s lethargy. “Dammit,” I said, “lower-case omega looks just like a pair of ----.” And here I used the standard American vulgarism for breasts.

The class immediately woke up. There were gasps of disbelief from some older women, a blush here and there among the younger ones, guffaws from a few jocks, and some uncomfortable squirming by the male yuppies. A ripple of laughter broke out, but it was nervous rather than amused. I wrapped up the lesson, and dismissed the class.

Later I wondered if I had let my exasperation get the better of me. Had some people been offended? Should I apologize? What limits were there to the use of humor in the classroom? These days, all you need is one aggrieved feminist bitch to go whining to the dean, and there would be trouble.

Finally I said to myself “I am a teacher, not a feelgood therapist. It’s not my job to cater to my students’ feelings, but to teach them a subject. Everyone in that classroom of adults has heard the word tits before. If as a result of my language they were offended, so be it. They aren’t there to be flattered or to have their sensibilities soothed, but to learn the Greek alphabet. And if they are so emotionally infantile that they can’t distinguish between the teacher and his subject, well… then they are going to have problems far beyond my classroom.”

The class went on uneventfully to the end of the term. We got through all our assigned chapters, and made respectable progress in etymology. When I sat down to grade the final exams, there wasn’t anything surprising—the good students did about as well as I expected, and the rest more or less scored according to their past record. When I came to the transliteration section, where examinees are asked to write out certain words in Greek letters, I mentally prepared myself for the usual distortions. And there they were, as they almost always are: lambda and gamma were confused; rho was unrecognizable; xi resembled a damaged corkscrew; mu looked like an encephalogram.

But no one—NO ONE—failed to write lower-case omega properly. Bad language has its uses.

In contemporary formalist poetry, the issue of so-called “improper language” is a vexed one. An editrix whom I respect, but with whom I disagree on almost every subject, has a powerful aversion to any kind of naughty words, and would not print the excellent Yiddish term schmuck. I argued in vain that this word was now part of the common parlance of all New Yorkers, both Jewish and gentile, and had the same general force as “jerk” or “idiot.” She would not print it. Another august editor of a formalist journal would not let me use the word “God” as an expletive. Still another rejected a satire because I rhymed the word doctor with verkakte (“shit-covered”), though I seriously doubt that many readers would have been aware of that meaning.

This wasn’t a problem in ancient poetry. Horace uses cunnus (“cunt”) to describe a woman; Catullus makes free use of mentula (“prick”) and futuere (“fuck”) in his lyrics. As for Martial, there isn’t anywhere you can turn in his Epigrams without bumping into some very salty language.

The argument that I got from the editrix was as follows: “If some things aren’t proscribed, they become mandatory.” By this she meant that once bad language was permitted to one poet, all the others would feel obliged to make use of it as well, in order to keep their audiences. This is what you might call the “delta of Venus” argument. Back in the late 1960s, Hustler magazine began publishing nude images of women showing their pubic triangles. Almost immediately, Playboy and the other skin rags followed suit, so as not to lose their clientele. Poetry, however, isn’t a pornographic centerfold. People don’t go to it just for the dirty words. There is no reason to assume that all poets will start frantically using four-letter words just because they become acceptable.

Another one of the editors said this to me: “All bad language has is shock value. It’s an illicit shortcut to generating a response in readers.” Here again, notice the unexamined premises—namely, that it is somehow wrong to shock people, and that poets are obliged to follow certain approved procedural steps when writing. Poetry isn’t an income-tax return. You don’t have to follow proper procedure in producing it. And if by chance poetry does shock someone, so much the better. Isn’t that preferable to what we have now—people silently dozing off as Percy Dovetonsils recites his epiphanic villanelle at a podium? Or as Melinda Mellifluous regales us with her heterometric sonnet on bread-baking?

A more general objection that one gets from editors is that they have to be aware of audience reaction, and must therefore be very careful about obscenity. Once more, we have a totally unwarranted assumption here. As I have argued many times, it is futile to worry about external audiences, because no one has any way of knowing who one’s eventual external audience will be. You have absolutely no control over who reads your work. So why worry about the reactions of readers who can’t be predicted, and who are in any case anonymous?

Concern for a supposed “audience” is really a mask for something else. When you fret and fuss about an external audience, you are really betraying your own fear of rejection. You’re afraid that something will escape your pen that causes a particular group of people to exclude you. And since you are desperate for the approval and acceptance of that particular group, you will make sure you say nothing that might offend them. In short, you’re behaving just like a social climber who wants to get into a certain country club.

A few days ago, as I sat in a New York City subway car, a black man boarded the train and tried to hawk CDs of his rap group. He said something to this effect: “Our rap music isn’t violent! We don’t disrespect women! We don’t glorify gangstas! We don’t encourage drug use or unsafe sex! We don’t talk about guns! We are responsible and progressive!” I tried to suppress my laughter—it’s not wise to show emotion in the New York subways—as the poor guy went on with his shpiel. Not a single person bought a CD.

Was this man knowledgeable at all about rap? Didn’t he know that its entire appeal is based on the cachet of the forbidden, the illegitimate, the violent? That the very raison d’etre of rap is to give voice to the sleazy ghetto subculture from which it first arose? Who the hell did he think he was going to sell rap CDs to—Louisa May Alcott?

The unwillingness to shock, and the disinclination to make an aggressive statement that is unconcerned with “audience reaction,” are endemic to capitalist societies that are based primarily on mass merchandizing appeal. But poetry ought to be immune to that sort of market-linked timidity. Absolutely nothing is riding on what we write or publish.

I’ve done what I can in my satires and translations to puncture the overinflated balloon of prissy decorum that oppresses formalist poetry today. I won’t tell others that they have to do the same, since everyone has the right to handle creativity in his own way. But I am going to take this opportunity to ask editors to stop being wimps and social climbers. Ten to one your little poetry mag isn’t making money. So you don’t have a goddamned thing to lose by printing bad language. Rethink your unexamined assumptions.

2008 by Joseph S. Salemi



About the Author

Joseph S. Salemi teaches in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College, CUNY. His books of poetry are Formal Complaints, Nonsense Couplets, Masquerade, and The Lilacs on Good Friday. His poems, articles, essays, reviews, and translations have appeared in over one hundred journals world-wide. Two of his most recent essays appear on-line at Barefoot Muse and The Chimaera. His article on Whittaker Chambers has just appeared in The University Bookman, and his “Memoir of Figurative Language” is in the latest number of Italian-Americana. He is an NEH Fellow, a winner of The Classical and Modern Literature Award, and a four-time finalist for The Howard Nemerov Prize. His latest book can be seen at


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