Friday, May 18, 2012

I Wish I'd Written This

Shit Poem
by Jas. H. Duke (1939-1992)

I'm in the shit business
I work for the sewerage department
I analyse experiments
I draw graphs and flow charts
and conclusions
today I was sitting at my desk
trying to explain
the dissolved air flotation process
where streams of little bubbles are released
into a tank full of sewerage
to float the suspended solids up to the surface
to be skimmed off
but what I was really thinking about
was lunchtime
the canteen cook
caters to the ethnic multitudes
by putting on Italian eats most days
I was thinking of ravioli
with meat sauce
but I was writing things like
"The sludge produced by this process
is grey-brown in colour
and does not produce
offensive odours
provided anaerobic conditions
can be prevented"
the sludge is really composed of
my used ravioli
and the Boss's used steak
and your used hamburger
and the vegetarian's used brown rice
all mixed up together
and when it gets in this state
no one wants to know about it
except me
I don't find shit offensive
most people do
they can'y wait to push the button
or pull the chain or something
and then they think the shit has vanished
into the centre of the earth
it hasn't really
it just floats up somewhere else
it's all biodegradable
I reckon most people think
that shit is the most deadly poison
on the face of the earth
they'd rather face ten tons of plutonium
than half a bucket of shit
even their own
no curse in the English Language
is complete
without "shit" included in it somewhere
lunchtime arrived
I ate my ravioli
I had a shit
it was brown in colour
I felt a lot better

This poem by the unforgettable Jas. H. Duke is actually autobiographical. (He really did work for the Sewerage Department, as a draughtsman.) It had the distinction of being censored by the ABC, our national broadcaster, which evidently agreed that most people find shit offensive. You can read the details here, including Jas’s own comment:

It is not a poem in bad taste. It is not written to get a cheap laugh by using a taboo word, but is a serious look at a serious subject. After all shit is a very common household substance being produced by every person, dog, cat, sheep, horse, cow, and every other animal every day. (The way it is collected and disposed of is a big factor in determining what sort of community we live in). Why should we be ashamed to mention the name of something our own bodies are producing every day? Why are we pretending that shit doesn't exist? Why are we denigrating the word "shit" to a curse?

Jas was a well-known performance poet. An anarchist influenced by Dada, his sound poems were a revelation. Listen to this unfortunately brief snippet from his Stalin, and blow your mind! Please stop and do it now before reading on. 

It really went on much longer, and he managed to say everything about Stalin by repeating that one word with different inflections, conveying a range of emotional reactions from dread to derision.

Here is an article he wrote about sound poetry. Don’t miss page two, with instructions for performing another of his own sound poems.

The shit poem, however, he read in an affable, conversational tone. 

He was also a concrete poet. From what I see online, many poets nowadays seem to understand that term only as shape poetry (which is indeed one form of concrete) but it can be far more pictorial. The graphics in his sound poetry article give you some idea of what Jas’s version was like. Indeed, his concrete poems went even further, with letters in fantastic typography coiling right across the page.

Here’s an interesting reminiscence by someone who knew him in England. It is strange to me to see him called Jim, as when I knew him — later — everyone called him Jas. Even odder to read that he was not well known in Australia. He was very well known indeed to other Australian poets and spoken poetry audiences, and the wealth of material found on Google suggests his importance. (The picture with this article is not from his days in England. It shows a group of Australian poets from that later era, and Jas is the one in the foreground with beard and cap.)

Sadly, I don’t think his books are available any more; but if you’d like to explore further, here’s the text of another poem, here’s another, and there is also material on Youtube

Finally, for a real treat — saving the best for last — do have a listen to the shit poem here — and to all the others at this link. (It won't take long.) Jas's poetry needs to be heard.

Poems and photos used in ‘I Wish I’d Written This’ remain the property of the copyright holders (usually their authors).


  1. Good one, Rosemary. I'm with you. People finding shit offensive would find much MORE offensive the way our "civilizations" deposit it straight into the ocean, even, at times, into the drinking supply......Thank you for faithfully bringing us these way cool poets week after week. You rock!

    1. I just love poets who are not afraid of using any word. Language is our tool, after all!


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