How to insult in verse.

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April 26 2006 6:22 AM

Dissed in Verse

The art of the poetic insult.

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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:

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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.

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