Advice for Poets 9: Is Swearing Ever Cool?

As part of our attempts to inspire all you creative people to write some poetry to contribute to our cancer poetry fundraising anthology, we’re taking a look at whether ‘bad language’ really is…well, bad language.

Before you read on…we’re sure it’s obvious, but, this post contains some bad language so please don’t read on if you’re easily offended!

mr rude

What Should I Avoid?

  • Over-use. If it’s just gratuitous swearing in an attempt to shock, it won’t work.
  • When not appropriate – no swearing in kids poetry…
  • Only use it when it fits. ‘But it rhymes with duck’ is not an excuse.
  • Lots of the time, there really are better ways of saying things – try these out and see whether its really necessary to pop in a cuss. You run the risk of alienating people.
  • Insults – if you have to resort to swearing to insult someone or something, then, well… it’s not big and it’s not clever. If you want to make a statement along these lines then consider trying to use a bit more wit to bring down your target. Also, consider this – if you want to have a go at the state, at people who are sexist or racist, or at Michael bloody Gove, then you may have a case for writing some scathing poetry. But if you’re set on launching a personal attack on someone then, quite honestly, chances are you’ve got a whole other set of problems that need addressing…

When Can It Work?

Humour: Let’s not be coy here – sometimes, a swear word (especially if you’re not expecting it) can raise a bit of a giggle. You know it’s true.

Shock Value: As above, the shock factor of finding a well-placed cuss can be extremely effective, especially if your subject matter is shocking or controversial.

Character Representation: If your character/the voice of your poem seems like the swear-y type, then don’t shy away from it so long as your sure it will work and you’re not just being gratuitous.

For Children – When it’s APPROPRIATE!!! We’re confident that we don’t have to remind you that swearing in kids’ poetry is big no-no. However, a little bit of ‘bad language’ that hints at rudeness rather than being rude can go down really well if you’re writing a funny poem – sometimes a little bit of toilet humour will go a long way!


Excerpt from Deborah Chivers, ‘Her Week’

Eat a quarter of a bowl
of seafood pasta;
the mussels look like
tiny excised cunts.
Note to self:
no interest now felt
about eating that type of thing.

This poem appears to be about the banality of existence. The narrator seems bored, maybe even a little depressed. The rest of the poem is about the other depressing little things that have happened during the week, like realising you need to go up a size when you buy tights or that popcorn smells a bit ‘farty.’ The swearing works because:

  • It’s not overdone – the poem is over 40 lines long and only mentions ‘cunts’ ‘fuck’ and ‘farty’ once each.
  • It jars with the otherwise painfully banal subject matter and dream-like narrative
  • It’s really quite an appropriate simile if you think about mussels-!
  • It’s a little bit funny – the ‘note to self’ bit following it makes it so
  • It fits perfectly with the narrator’s state of mind and voice. Although it juxtaposes the writing style, it IS in character.

Kid swearing - calm down son!

Do you agree? Let us know what you think!

We”d love for any of you creative people to consider submitting some poetry for our cancer fundraising project. We’d also really appreciate if you could share our callout for writers on any of your social media platforms or personal blogs to get the message out to as many people as possible. Thank you!!


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