Dr. C. B. Weagley Veterinary Surgeon, C.G. Blatt's Photographic Emporium, The Palace Saloon and Restaurant, and the City Cab Company of Hays, Kansas—Hallgren had a poem printed on the back of his business card (shown here). And what a poem it is! In five stanzas, "A Fair Bather" incorporates as many dirty words as it can, except that none of those words actually appear in print; instead, they're evoked by the poem's rhyme scheme, as in line two of the following example (stanza 3):
She would float on her side and for shells she would hunt,
And go through the motions of washing her
Clothes out so tidy and wringing them dry,
And hanging them out with a tired out sigh.
At its most clever, "A Fair Lady" makes sense both with and without the dirty words; in the passage above, for example, one can read from line 2 to line 3 ("washing her / clothes") and make sense, or one can mentally supply the dirty word and make another kind of sense. Same goes for stanza 4:
She could dive like a frog and swim like a duck,
And showed by her actions that she knew how to
Frolic in water clear up to her chin,
Without being drowned as so many have been.
You can probably hear the entire P&PC Office snickering, right?
Loren Glass (pictured here). In addition to studying American literature and celebrity culture (see Authors, Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States ), Glass is an expert on dirty words and the history of obscenity. He is co-editor of Obscenity and the Limits of Liberalism (Ohio State UP, 2011), and his new book, Counter-Culture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde (forthcoming from Stanford UP, Spring 2013) traces the history of the anti-censorship publisher that printed—and was taken to court again and again for printing—such "obscene" books as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer. (When you get a chance, check out Part I and Part II of the preview to Counter-Culture Colophon that Glass published in the Los Angeles Review of Books about a year ago.) In other words, if anyone could tell us about the poetics of obscenity in "A Fair Bather," Glass would be the one.
So, yes, we wrote to Glass. And here's what he had to say:
In Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext, Garrett Stewart argues that "silent reading processes a text as the continuous inhibition of the oral" (2). Stewart has little to say about literary obscenity in this book—he is hunting for larger game—but the idioms in which he expresses the relationship between the phoneme (the smallest unit of spoken language) and grapheme (the smallest unit of written language) continuously evoke the process of censorship.
But, of course, the reader must know these words in order to hear them, thus asymmetrically mapping this division between voice and print onto the distinction between childhood and adulthood. The mapping is asymmetric since the correlation is not between childhood and voice, on the one hand, and print and adulthood, on the other, though it is true that young children don't yet know how to read; rather, the distinction is between those old enough to have heard the concealed words and those too young to have become familiar with them. Thus a secondary acquisition of reading is added on to the primary one. This secondary acquisition is marked by a knowledge of the speech that is suppressed by the conventions used to represent bad language. Ultimately, then, this poem reveals that dirty words, unlike children, are heard but not seen.