Unlike "pornography"—which is always sexual—"obscene" can refer to anything that is "offensive or repugnant to accepted standards of morality and decency." The term is infinitely elastic, adjusting its parameters to eras, cultures, generations, individuals.
For centuries a street in York, England that was frequented by prostitutes was unapologetically named "Gropecunt Lane." Today, the sign on that street says "Grape Lane." Fifty years ago women who wore coats made from mink were "glamorous." Today animal rights activists boo the few who dare appear in public in such garb for their "obscene" behavior. Members of the Occupy Wall Street Movement call salaries and capital gains made by "the 1%" of rich Americans "obscene." Even so innocent a creation as a banana split can be "obscene" to someone trying to lose weight.
Flipping through the hundred and thirty or so poems I've written in the past twenty years I came up with two likely candidates for a charge of obscenity. One uses a word for excrement that the FCC refuses to allow on the public air waves; the other features a word for the sex act that the FCC also bans. Although both words are probably being uttered by millions of men and women in English speaking countries at this very moment they are still toxic in polite society.
Maybe I should just plead guilty. But hold on. Although neither poem could be read on radio or tv without frequent bleeping all words can be published on the internet. So I'll give each the opportunity to defend itself. First, the poem that focuses on excrement:
It's the same old
shit you've been sidestepping for years;
walking the dog, jogging at dawn,
plop! on the trail, the pavement, lawn,
unhappy surprise (in medias res),
stuck to your shoe—horrified face
behold! the same old shit....
Busy old sun is turning it black;
burning off offensive fragrance...
till even the flies lose interest.
Toddlers are fond of their ca-ca;
the French love to mutter, merde;
but no one likes the same old shit....
Except on TV: Springer, Stern;
American Idol (crash & burn);
tired jokes from Leno, Sykes;
Nancy Grace doing the cha cha—yikes!
Maddow, Hannity in a snit.
Everyone paddling in the same old shit…
Bills come so fast, you can't catch a breath.
Your son's in the bathroom doing meth.
Bernie made off with half of your wealth
Blue Cross is raising the cost of your health.
Presidential candidates says they're fresh & bold.
Same old, same old, same old….
Womb to the maggot; rose to the fly;
manure kisses seed and it sprouts.
"For love has pitched his mansion
in the place of excrement" (no shit!)—
but, alas, this stuff's too stiff & cold
& dessicate for love.
You don't need contact lenses
to get a good load of this crap.
You'd recognize it anywhere, anytime.
The older you get the more there is of it,
the more you shake your head and groan:
Shit! It's the same old...
The poem opens with the disgusting matter the S-word refers to and frankly acknowledges its offensiveness. The word becomes a metaphor for obscenity itself, encompassing all of the tasteless matter thrust upon us today—from exploitative television shows to political double talk and financial chicanery. The poem laments the fact that obscenity has become so widespread that we are no longer shocked by its myriad manifestations. We are so used to being offended by the impropriety of everything from hidden bank fees to the in-your-face "fascinating" Khardashians that we can only sigh and shake our heads at each additional assault.
My poem couldn't be read on the PBS News Hour, but its choral use of the disqualifying S-word expresses our frustration with the commercially-driven obscenification of America.
It's one thing to use the S-word six times in a poem (seven if you count its translation into French); but the F-word—the phoneme that led Ralphie's mom to cram a bar of Lifebuoy soap into his mouth in A Christmas Story—uttered six times in the same poem? That has to be obscene!
The poem is about a seven-year-old boy who is exposed to the dread obscenity for the first time, as he walks to church alone in 1948. Once again, I'll let the poem plead its case:
"Hey, white boy! Who the fuck you think you are?"
the man shouted. He was staggering about
under the awning of the White Horse Saloon
on Liberty Street, in Plainfield, New Jersey—
where, on a hotter day, twenty years later,
rioters armed with nothing but the shoes on
their feet would stomp a policeman to death.
(For I was taking a shortcut through
what grownups called "the colored section"
on my way to St. Mary's in July of 1948.)
"Where the fuck you come from?" he yelled
as I drew near. I slowed down and began
to whisper The Twenty-Third Psalm.
I tried to lie down in green pastures
but before I could drink from still waters
"What the fuck you doin' here?" he roared
(so close now I could taste the whiskey).
"Goin' ta Church," I mumbled, keeping my
eyes on the ground (for, though only seven,
I was wise enough to know: not Jesus, Mary,
or Joseph—not even The Holy Ghost—could
save me if things got ugly on Liberty Street).
"Pray for me, brutha!" he thundered,
touching my sleeve as I bolted by.
Who the fuck do I think I am?
Where the fuck did I come from?
What the fuck am I doing here?
Questions smuggled in from another country—
kissing cousins to those Sister would pose
over and over in Catechism Class.
I wasn't able to answer them on Liberty Street
or anywhere since… not in black/not in white.
The context of this poem is more serious than the first; the humor darker. There is racial tension in the air (both present and future). The boy appears to be seriously threatened and the obscene word sounds sinister. But when the frightened child finally explains where he is going and the black man responds with an expression of brotherhood and request for a prayer we realize that he has never been a real threat. The F-word is merely verbal filler, akin to the "you knows" and "exactlys" that pervade American speech today.
To the adult looking back on the incident years later the once scary stranger becomes almost mythic—an Old Testament prophet challenging him with what he now understand are life's most fundamental and ultimately unanswerable questions.
"The Same Old" is too comic to be obscene; "Liberty Street" too serious to offend.
It is, in fact, difficult for poetry to be obscene. As in-your-face-shocking as Catullus and Aretino try to be, even they fall short. Impropriety can't help but be diminished when filtered through wit, humor, persona, metaphor, imagery, meter, rhyme, and all the other resources in a poet's toolbox. When good poetry is judged obscene that judgment is usually temporary. Baudelaire's Fleur du Mal and Ginsberg's Howl—once condemned as disgusting—are now accepted as literary classics. There are no bad words. Only bad poetry can be truly obscene.