I recently viewed for the first time Martin Scorsese’s 2013 The Wolf of Wall Street, a rather Shakespearean tale of Jordan Belfort’s excess in money, sex, drugs, and swears, inter alia. The film, you may recall, grabbed a lot of headlines for its record-breaking number of fucks in a nondocumentary film. (The all-time title goes to Steve Anderson’s 2005 documentary, Fuck.)
I suppose it’s hard to argue against such gratuitousness in a story all about it, but I did have to resist the urge to keep a tally during my viewing. Quantity aside, there were some truly memorable swears in the film. My personal favorite? “The book, motherfucker, from the book” (about 0:45 into the clip). That’s good shit. Ironically, during a fuck-filled argument with his wife later in the film, Belfort pleads: “Let’s use our words.” In so many ways, this sums up one of the story’s central theme: Rags to riches is the great sales pitch. (I’m still rooting for you, though, Mr. Bookman.)
That said, I found myself thirsty for a tonic when the credits rolled. Immediately, I jumped to Robert Creeley‘s iconic “I Know a Man.” It’s a staple of anthologies, but it remains fresh 61 years after initial publication and stands as an incredible example of using words, particularly swear words. Creeley’s poetry is sparing without being sparse, emotive without being emotional, spontaneous without being uncontrolled. Not uncontrolled, to be litotic—that’s how I’d characterize the form, content, and, yes, swears in “I Know a Man”:
As I sd to my
friend, because I am
always talking,–John, I
sd, which was not his
name, the darkness sur-
rounds us, what
can we do against
it, or else, shall we &
why not, buy a goddamn big car,
drive, he sd, for
christ’s sake, look
out where yr going.
The poem is often described as a drunken poem written in the vein of the beats, with whom and whose poetry Creeley was well familiar. It’s erratic and hesitant, and these qualities play out in Creeley’s syntax and enjambment, as so much of the great work of his poetry did. It stammers and hiccups like a drunk, drunk in spite of and due to the “darkness” (5). In my opinion, no poetry gropes with and through language as exquisitely as Creeley’s does. He is so deliberate in his diction: Not only is that darkness palpable, but, as an abstract noun, it is also almost conspicuous in a poem written in such an otherwise ordinary register.
Ordinary: That’s precisely what I love about the swear words in the third and final tercets of the poem. The speaker’s “goddamn” (9) and “for / christ’s sake” (11) are spoken as if drunk but not too fucked up. Too fucked up yet, because we have always got to pull ourselves together even in the face of the void else we’ll wreck. The syntax of his noun phrase “goddamn big car,” compared with a more natural-sounding “big, goddamn car,” has the sound of a drunken epiphany, as if the speaker is saying, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s get a big car.” This makes “big car” grammatically and conceptually immediate, a getaway car fleeing from yet also speeding into the darkness. Perhaps his “goddamn” is cursing postwar commercialism and escapism—or, conversely, the freedom—symbolized by the car. At the same, the “goddamn” is offhand, asking us not to take it too seriously. Like his words, the speaker’s meanings are conflicted and unstable and happen fast. Yet the spondaic phrase “goddamn big car” does slow us down just for a moment, with the end-stopped comma serving as an additional pump on the brake, else the speaker gets too reckless existentially and the poet, formally and linguistically.
Along with the percussive K‘s of “christ’s sake,” the swears are perfectly intoned when you listen to Creeley read the poem. His swears may be mild, but, goddamn, are they choice.
Creeley’s poetry is not one generally given to swearing, making “I Know a Man” proof that there is truly an art to it.