Dissed in Verse
The art of the poetic insult.
Some years ago April was declared Poetry Month. Is that a good idea or a bad one? A vulgarizing gesture or a democratic one? Or completely unimportant? As in previous years, Slate will attempt to straddle all sides of this issue: this time, with a little anthology of poems that deliver insults or express personal dislike.
Poetry of bad personal feeling, insult, revenge: It's central to the art. The best-known poem in the category may be Walter Raleigh's epitaph on the Earl of Leicester:
Here lies the noble Warrior that never blunted sword;
Here lies the noble Courtier that never kept his word;
Here lies his Excellency that governed all the state;
Here lies the Lord of Leicester that all the world did hate.
Part of the trick is the bluntness of the last line: the very absence of wit, after the opening sarcastic reversals, constitutes its own kind of wit.
The tradition of poetry as a way of being mean is an ancient one. The inventive range of Greek and Latin put-downs suggests that they were playing variations on a long, rich tradition of barbs and comebacks reaching back into prehistory. Dudley Fitts' Poems From the Greek Anthology includes lyrics of personal derogation like this one, attributed to the Emperor Trajan:
Lift sunward your considerable nose,
fling wide th'abyss of yr mouth,
And you'll make a presentable sun-dial for all who pass by.
The image is unfair, unkind, and funny, like Paul Engle's epigram on the Duke of Alba as painted by Goya:
This is the kind of face that sheep
Must count at night, when they can't sleep.
The Roman poet Martial devised an imaginative put-down, translated in a rhymed couplet by Francis Davison in 1608:
I muse not that your Dog turds oft doth eat;
To a tongue that licks your lips, a turd's sweet meat.
Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.J.V. Cunningham, untitled epigram, from Poems of J. V. Cunningham, edited with introduction and commentary by Tim Steele(Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, 1998). Reprinted with permission of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press (www.ohiou.edu/oupress/). Marianne Moore, "To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity," from The Complete Poems of Marianne Moore (The Viking Press, 2003) © 2003, Estate of Marianne Moore. Reproduced by permission of Marianne Craig Moore, literary executor. All rights reserved. W.B. Yeats, "The Scholars," from The Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition, edited by Richard J. Finneran. (The MacMillan Publishing Company, 1960). © 1940 by Georgie Yeats, renewed © 1960 by Bertha Georgie Yeats. © 1928 by MacMillan Publishing Company, renewed © 1956 by Georgie Yeats. Reprinted with permission of AP Watt Ltd. on behalf of Michael B. Yeats and the Estate of William Butler Yeats. Louise Glück, "Labor Day," from The First Four Books of Poems (The Ecco Press, 1990). Reprinted with the permission of HarperCollins Publishers. T.S. Eliot, lines from "Five-Finger Exercises," from Collected Poems 1909-1962. (Harcourt Inc., New York, and Faber and Faber, London., 1963) © 1936 by Harcourt Inc., renewed © 1964 by T.S. Eliot. Reprinted with the permission of Faber and Faber, London.