My very dear immediate supervisor, regretting the imminent departure of a coworker for greener pastures, rather hilariously suggested in front me—of all people—that when she goes, there will be no one left on staff who, like said, very dear immediate supervisor, occasionally lets slip that best old English word for sexual congress. (You know the one she means: four letters, rhymes with all sorts, including duck not goose, the most popular expletive . . . oh, work it out for yourselves.) Now, it’s sweet to think that either woman, neither known for anything much but good cheer generally, and neither known for a rough tongue, should think themselves specially noted for the use of such language, and even sweeter that my very dear immediate supervisor should fancy that I or anyone else present for her comment might disapprove. (How much do I love the good and gentle people with whom I work?!)
Truth be told, and why not? I curse like the proverbial sailor. Try as I might, having now expanded to my very full dignity, I have never been able to not, though I am as good and upright a retailer as might be, and mind my manners nowhere better than on and off the sales floor. So do we all. Doesn’t do to express one’s self too colorfully while at work. As I hope I’ve already suggested above, the anecdote is made amusing by the fact that I, for one, can not remember the last time I actually heard the word referenced above used by anyone present, save myself.
The fault in contemporary usage, if I might be allowed a moment’s assumed stuffiness, is not that such words are used too liberally, but rather that there’s too little invention in most modern cursing. The Arabian Nights, as I remember them by way of Burton, taught me much about the leveling of elaborate curses. Various “sons of —” therein, beyond the common breeding dogs, and dark predictions of future misfortunes couched in the most exquisitely detailed and unlooked-for debauch and disease, were the constant delight of my childhood reading of those classic tales. Forget flying carpets and the wonders of Aladdin’s cave. How I relished the beauties of a good pseudo-Arabian curse! So delicious and deliciously foreign!
Both my parents swear, though my mother, very much a woman of her generation, has always prefaced her worst expletives with both a blush, and a nod. (When I was in my early twenties, my sister and I once and for all forced my mother to say that most powerful of F-bombs, though she only yielded it up at last after torture and then in a most unsatisfying whisper. Still, a victory for her ungrateful and ungracious children none the less.) My father, at least when not in mixed company, finds nothing foreign to his vocabulary, though he tends to the less obvious and more ornate story form when on his game; to wit, in a recent conversation about all our various ailments presently suffered, “Put us all in a bag and shake, nothing worth a damn would fall out.”
Another influence on my own bad language is Yosemite Sam from the great Warner Brother’s cartoons. The endless invention of the great Mel Blanc has always been an inspiration to me. Has anyone ever cursed with such a beautiful flow of brilliance and nonsense? I think not.
All of which by way of preface to warn the delicate sensibility from following the link provided to my latest posting to Youtube. As part of my blogging the past few years, I’ve taken to putting up videos of not only proper readings at the bookstore, but also short selections of my own reading in poetry and prose, usually read aloud from my old armchair. Recently, I passed a threshold of no special importance to anyone but me and posted my three hundredth such, and to mark the occasion, such as it was, put up my second selection of bloopers. One would not think, just reading a familiar poem by Tennyson aloud, that I might mess the thing up so badly as to end up with anything so funny as an actual out-take, but one would be wrong. Do it nearly every time, multiple times.
That’s the secret I wanted to share. No secret at all to any that might have been to any of my public readings of Christmas stories, or Blake poetry, Dickens’ birthday celebrations or the like. Practice as I do, try as I might, one of the inescapable risks of any “live” reading of verse or prose will be mispronunciation, stumbles, fumbles and the too frequent lapse into a blank panic/ pause. One might think the very rhythm of the best writing might ease the way when reading aloud, but actually, I’ve found, the better the writing the likelier the gaff as great writing tends to be rhythmically complex, the vocabulary quite rich, and the structure of even the most seemingly simple blank verse sometimes tougher to reproduce on a right-sized breath than the most tedious sheet of instructions for assembling a bookcase with an allen wrench. Don’t believe me? Try it. Any parent, any babysitter can tell you just what a tongue-twister Green Eggs and Ham can be.
And when these things go wrong, at least when I’m left to myself and my dear little Flip camera, well . . . I have been known to curse. The edit I’ve actually done of my latest flubs actually has, so far as I was able, fewer real curse words in it than seemed probable. There is a great deal of gibberish, not a few meaningful sighs, and even a rather embarrassing giggle near the end. All, or mostly, just good clean fun.
The point of these readings for me, public and taped, is now and has always been to share not only my enthusiasm for the thing read, but also my sincere belief in the necessity of reading aloud. Yes, it’s all very nice being told how well I do this sort of thing, and it is flattering to be asked to do this in public, and to be paid to do it — I blush to say –but beyond my own ego and very slim purse, I’ve always insisted and sincerely believed that I might encourage others by my less than professional example. It’s a glory of the modern world to have recordings of the late Sir John Gielgud reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. I treasure those recordings. But I want other booksellers, other readers, others every bit as common as me to try it. What better way than by doing? And what better way to show that even after the first 300 postings I still get it wrong, wrong, wrong? Doesn’t matter, you see, so long as the thing gets read, and read aloud: a Christmas dirge by Alfred Lord Tennyson, or a deliciously silly poem by Ogden Nash, all of it, even the stumbles and the cursing, all of it puts breath to words, and what else, what better use might we make of such wonderful stuff?
Do try. Curse if you must. Laugh when you get it wrong. But read something back, out loud, to the great spirits who put those words on the page. I believe, with all my atheist’s damned heart, Dickens, and Tennyson, and Cowper and Twain, they’re listening.
Brad Craft buys used books at University Book Store (Seattle), where he’s currently cashiering due to a broken toe. Craft blogs at usedbuyer2.0 and is the author of A Is for Auden: an Alphabet Book of Poets. Listen to him read Ogden Nash’s ‘The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus’ here and you’ll find those bloopers here.