Decorum 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.