On using the word “C***” in a poem

It’s a word that’s always controversial. It’s a word that appears briefly in my latest poem, except I’m really not sure it can stay there. It’s a word that I would only use around adults. It’s powerful. It’s uncomfortable. It’s a taboo, an expletive, a badge of feminist pride, a verbal assault, an honorific, an accurate anatomical term. It is some or all of these things to me at the same time.

This word is hotly contested territory.

At one time I would never have considered using this word as part of a poetic lexicon, not least because it has never really been part of my everyday vocab. Like most people, I’m comfortable with casual swearing in close circles of friends, but this particular word always seemed a step too far. So ugly. So insulting. So bad.

But it’s recently gained a place in my heart, and in my language, and its aura of nastiness (though never truly expelled) has been replaced by a dawning respect, even a sense of wanting to treasure and nurture this word.

You see, I love words. I love words that are powerful, words that are precise, words that allow us to comprehend and convey our human experience.

woman‘ by asia doro licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For example, the experience of one’s biology, of gender identity, of being woman in a slowly evolving society, of containing sexual and sensual currents within one’s being. Experiences of menstruation, attraction, childbirth, sex, coming of age. Experiences of abuse, dehumanisation, pain, and laughter. This word just carries so much weight. It allows us to converse about so many things.

I’m currently involved in a performance called The Vagina Conversations, held on V-Day each year, a wonderful local re-invention of the work that started with Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. In it, women perform honest stories (or poems, songs, theatre pieces, comedy, whatever) about anything vagina-related. And it inevitably brings into question the very language we use when referring to that particular part of the female body.

I was inspired by Laura-Doe’s reclamation of the word ‘cunt’ at this event two years ago. I often found myself recalling her advice: Think, ‘Queen’ while you say, ‘Cunt’.  

Do poets have a certain responsibility to language? Is it our job to tend it, nurturing new words, eradicating unhelpful ones? I believe we should, as much as possible, be truthful, which is not exactly the same as being accurate. But if there is inaccuracy inherent in our common lexicon, and it serves to silence other kinds of truth, then we should seek to replace it with something better.

The words society has used to name – or to suggest, to avoid, to erase – certain parts of a woman, reveal a deeply damaging kind of inaccuracy.

Many argue that the word ‘vagina’ is itself a misnomer: it simply means ‘sheath’. It does not include the clitoris or labia, and thus ignores the visual and pleasure-giving parts of a woman’s anatomy, focusing instead on male pleasure and penetration. We find many vagina-owners are uncomfortable with the word ‘vagina’ for all sorts of reasons; it doesn’t seem to fit, it sounds icky, it’s too sterile. Ensler has it spot on in my reckoning:

“It’s a totally ridiculous, completely unsexy word. If you use it during sex, trying to be politically correct– “Darling, could you stroke my vagina?”– you kill the act right there. I’m worried about vaginas, what we call them and don’t call them.”
Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues

So if you can’t call it a vagina, what can you call it? Anatomical terms break it down into component parts: ‘vulva’, ‘clitoris ‘ (internal and external), ‘pudenda’ – none of which encompass the totality.  Colloquialisms and slang terms are usually tainted by prior usage as insults, such as ‘pussy’, ‘twat’, or ‘hole’. Not to mention the downright horrifying: ‘axe-wound’, ‘meat-flaps’ etc. Words which make our anatomy into expletives transform the body parts themselves into areas which are unspeakable, shameful, abhorrent, and censored.

In the face of such alternatives, “cunt” begins to reveal some advantages. It encompasses holistically all the various parts we are talking about. It isn’t sterile or medical, and might be used in a sexy context without ruining the mood. Most of all, though, it comes complete with the unusual power of referring to female anatomy accurately, explicitly, and without shame.

In fact, I think the aura of taboo and offensiveness surrounding this word only serves to give it more power in the hands of women. When we use it to reclaim our bodies, we turn all of that power that has been used against us to our advantage. What we wield cannot be used to bring us down.

But this is all a bit simplistic, isn’t it? Even if I decide to use “cunt” in a poem, for all these reasons, I still run a huge risk that listeners will not understand or appreciate the intention behind it. Language is never a one-way transaction. And I will constantly need to adapt and censor the work for my audience: sensitivity to younger listeners and different values are entirely appropriate; and I’m a performance poet, so there is always a social context to consider.

This raises another question:

Is it the poet’s job to push the barriers of language, whether audiences are ready or not?

Allen Ginsberg was known to a generation of mainstream America as someone who ‘shocked’ society and overturned normal rules of propriety. I believe that his intent was never merely to shock, but to speak the truth in an honest, uncompromising way. He summed up the question in a coherent and compelling manner on national television after being asked by the producer not to say any ‘dirty words’:

Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. Credit Associated Press .jpg
Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl” in Washington Square in 1966. Credit Associated Press

“the language we use should reflect our inner worlds. When you censor me (on TV) there is a problem with our language… this is censorship of the spontaneity and delight of poetic language… If you are creating art from a genuine, not constructed consciousness, (the sensory field or “mind-images”), the language of consciousness enters into that. Those are the building blocks of art… Right now, you are being denied my actual words.”

Ginsberg has simplified the question of which words we should use to describe our bodies. To him, the language we use in public should be true to our inner worlds. So here’s a question that actually floored me for a bit:

When you think of your ‘ladyparts’, your actual spontaneous experience of your body, which word does your inner voice use?

Honestly, my first answer was, “nothing.” Now that is a little weird, when I consider that my inner voice has no trouble labelling my elbow, nose, or thumb. But that place which draws my inner attention frequently, which hums and sings and desires and brings pleasure, that place is a confused linguistic blank. Where is the ‘spontaneity and delight of poetic language’ in that?

This makes me feel that it is even more important, then, to consciously choose the words we wish to know ourselves by. If I choose a word of power, even with its negative associations, I feel like it serves us better than something which only hints at and diminishes the thing it points to. Although sometimes a blank can move the conversation forward just as powerfully, as Lisa Williams did in this poem.

What every poem is implicitly saying is this:

This is the best word to name that experience, the most important word; this is the word that deserves a place in our language.

For now, I’m standing by my word.



One Reply to “On using the word “C***” in a poem”

  1. Can’t wait to read and/or hear your poem!

    Great article, very thorough as well as both honest and engaging.

    I was a little saddened, listening to the wonderful Laura-Doe, because when I wrote my 1974 C*** poem – well, first of all it was written in the heat of frustrated passion, which had to explode somehow – but after that, I also wanted to reclaim the word for its true meaning, I hate that a word for something so beautiful and useful is distorted to be the worst, nastiest, ugliest swear-word in the language. So I am sad that, 43 years later, we still need to reclaim it. However, there is some progress, notably via Eve Ensler, Laura-Doe, you and many others. And yes, Laura-Doe has a point about it being so powerful, which is why it is is used as the greatest curse-word (the one with the most magic, the one that invokes the Goddess in her many guises).

    What worked for me when I found I had children in the audience, was to say, very cool and business-like, “In deference to the presence of young people here, I won’t tell you the title of this poem. I’ll just say it’s a four-letter word starting with C, meaning female genitalia.”

    I maintain that it is THE poetically right title for my poem. (“THAT poem”, as both those who love it and those who hate it call it.) And that’s why I used it – because it IS the right title, for poetic reasons above all. The clinical “vagina” wouldn’t have worked; nor would the various cutesy or otherwise diminishing slang terms. … But you understand all that.


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