Chris Margolin

Syntax and the Semantics of Sex

“Confessions of an Educator” columnist Chris Margolin learned the hard way why it’s best to get permission before teaching poetry … or anything that might be considered “racy.” 


Each year, my students recite a poem from an author of their choosing. I give them the thumbs-up on the poet they choose and then I leave it up to them to read through their author’s work and discover the piece they want to recite—hopefully a piece that resonates with them or maybe changes their thinking in some way. Typically, students choose something they know—Shel Silverstein, Dr. Seuss, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes. They tend to find the shortest poems allowed—a minimum of eight lines—and work hard to memorize the piece. Unfortunately, a few years back, I didn’t monitor the poems as well as I probably should have.

One of my students chose “Decorum” by Stephen Dunn—one of my favorite pieces, by one of my favorite poets. The major problem was that I didn’t require them to show me the poem prior to the recitation—a major mistake.  When she announced the piece to the class, I took a deep breath. I knew the poem very well and, against my better judgment, I made an executive decision to allow her to recite the lengthy piece, because it dealt with syntax and word choice and the different emotions that come from certain turns-of-phrase. And frankly, it’s a strong piece; and there was conviction in the way she stood there, about to speak the words she had spent so much time memorizing. She didn’t choose this poem because it was racy or because it might contain some subjective material. She chose it because she believed in it and because it held power. I thought it would at least lead to a good discussion; and the class was full of seniors, so I knew they could handle it.

What I didn’t expect was for the principal to walk in for a random classroom observation. And I definitely didn’t expect her to walk in right when the student began the line, “No, that’s fucking, they must have been fucking.” I could feel my hands gripping the armrests of my chair, my face twitched to a deep cringe, and the principal gave me a look like the world would end if I didn’t bring it to a close quickly.

I chose—even though I knew I’d be taken to task by my boss—to let her continue the piece. My principal stared at me as if I’d murdered a small puppy. I would, unfortunately, have to have a conversation with the student after class and let her know that, while it was an amazing poem, I shouldn’t have let her recite it and that she should have realized that before spending all that time memorizing it. But I didn’t really believe that. I believed that she made the right choice in her desire to have a class discussion about a poem that dealt with semantics, about a poem that expressed emotions in a way that forced people to think outside the box, and about two things the students understood: sex and conversation.

Look, we live in a sexualized world. Children—yes, children—are starting to discover themselves earlier and discover others way earlier than previous generations. Hell, I was a sophomore in high school before I had my first kiss and these days there are pregnant freshmen walking through the halls. They understood the language of the piece and that helped them to grasp the ideas of syntax and semantics.

Later that day, I was asked to revise my poetry curriculum and make sure that none of the pieces I was teaching dealt with sexual content and that, if it did, the students’ parents had signed waivers allowing that type of content. Freshmen read about anal sex through the words of Shakespeare, but they couldn’t hear the word “fuck” to learn about the difference between lovemaking and carnal sex? So, I took out “Making Love to Roget’s Wife,” about the man who wrote the thesaurus and his strumpet who longed for a man that would kill with a book rather than recite from it. I took out “The Flea” and parts of “Howl” and so many other pieces that had helped to define my own literary knowledge and, more importantly, knowledge about life, love, and the reality of the world within which we live.

I understood it to some extent. I should have (and from that point on, I did) had parents sign a waiver saying they understood there would be mature content—after all, it was poetry, not pornography. I shouldn’t have allowed that poem to continue—or to be recited in the first place. It was the bluntest piece a student had chosen for a recitation and maybe that wasn’t the best choice. But then again, it’s a damn good piece and it captivated every student in the class. But I should have stopped her because,


… I remembered how fuck
gets dirty as it moves reptilian
out of certain minds, certain mouths.


But, so what? The class discussion should have been about the power of words and grammar and semantics and choice. Instead, there was chatter about what the principal would say and whether or not the student, or their teacher, would be in trouble. The talk degenerated to whispers about sex and girls and boys; and the lessons found in the piece were lost.

We teach real students with real ideas and problems and successes and challenges. They may screw around, but they are teenagers and they are learning. They know the bad words; they’ve heard them all, so why is it so terrible that we occasionally use them while we’re teaching?

One of my professors used to tell us that “sometimes there’s nothing better than a good ‘what the fuck.’ ” Hemingway tells us that we should “develop a built-in bullshit detector,” but we’re not allowed to say that to our students because they might hear them and do terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things. Or maybe they’ll learn how to use words in their proper context and grow up to be well-spoken, strong-willed, well-educated, positive members of society. But why would we want that?



by Stephen Dunn


She wrote, “They were making love
up against a gymnasium wall,”
and another young woman in class,
serious enough to smile, said


“No, that’s fucking, they must
have been fucking,” to which many
agreed, pleased to have the proper fit
of word with act.


But an older woman, a wife, a mother,
famous in class for confusing grace
with decorum and carriage,
said the F-word would distract


the reader, sensationalize the poem.
“Why can’t what they were doing
just as easily be called making love?”
It was an intelligent complaint,


and the class proceeded to debate
what’s fucking, what’s making love,
and the importance of the context, tact,
the bon mot. I leaned toward those


who favored fucking; they were funnier
and seemed to have more experience
with the happy varieties of their subject.
But then a young man said, now believing


he had permission, “What’s the difference,
you fuck ’em and you call it making love;
you tell ’em what they want to hear.”
The class jeered, and another man said


“You’re the kind of guy who gives fucking
a bad name,” and I remembered how fuck
gets dirty as it moves reptilian
out of certain minds, certain mouths.


The young woman whose poem it was,
small-boned and small-voiced,
said she had no objection to fucking,
but these people were making love, it was


her poem and she herself up against
that gymnasium wall, and it felt like love,
and the hell with all of us.
There was silence. The class turned


to me, their teacher, who they hoped
could clarify, perhaps ease things.
I told them I disliked the word fucking
in a poem, but that fucking


might be right in this instance, yet
I was unsure now, I couldn’t decide.
A tear formed and moved down
the poet’s cheek. I said I was sure


only of “gymnasium,” sure it was
the wrong choice, making the act seem
too public, more vulgar than she wished.
How about “boat house?” I asked.




Chris Margolin

Chris Margolin spent more than a decade in Education as a high school English teacher, and is now an Instructional Coach for the Longview School District. He is the founder of The Poetry Question, an online journal which focuses on reviews of small press poetry publications, and runs a regular series called "The Power of Poetry," where notable poets share their personal stories of how poetry has affected their lives. Margolin resides in Vancouver, Washington with his wife, and daughter. 

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