Poems for Your Enemies
PostedDecember 14, 2004
If the ancient Greek poet Archilochus had just gotten what he was promised, he might be remembered for the inspirational poems he sang rather than his revenge fantasies. But alas, the father of his bride-to-be changed his mind about the poet, and married his daughter off to another man. Thus Archilochus’s disposition plunged into perpetual bitterness. He transformed his poetry, written in the seventh century B.C.E., from inspirational verse to ferocious invective, imposing misery on his former fiancé and her family. A popular story has it that these poems were so virulent that the entire family hanged themselves in disgrace. No wonder Archilochus wrote, in one of his few surviving fragments:
My one great talent lies in making
those who wrong me suffer horribly.
For his pains, Archilochus is credited with the invention of iambic verse, the chief type of meter in modern and contemporary prosody. Long before iambos came to be defined as a metrical unit, it was a genre of poetry, namely criticism and satire. Departing from the hexameter line, Archilochus found a more supple rhythm and harsher syllables in his iambic tetrameter--the ideal medium for his diatribes.
The form his anger took survived for generations, and was taken up most famously in Rome by Catullus in the first century B.C.E. Known for his bouts with public figures, Catullus's poems were often brief, epigrammatic potshots at those he disliked. The short form allowed him to make quick work of his enemies, including the famed Roman orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, for whom Catullus trademarked his sarcasm:
Most eloquent of all past and present
offspring of Romulus, O Marcus Tully,
--and of all those to come in future ages!
you’ve won the gratitude of your Catullus,
who is most certainly the worst of poets;
as certainly the very worst of poets
as you are--certainly--the best of lawyers.
Amid common notions of poems as songs, possessing and composed in beauty, poetry for enemies can come out sounding as though a few strings on the violin have broken, hair-raising enough to silence a symphony or draw gasps from the audience. This sort of anti-poetry often bears the scars of unresolved affairs, unrequited loves, wounds transcribed into verse. Such poems can themselves become toxic, as William Blake saw in "A Poison Tree":
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine,--
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Nowadays, where invective can’t be done as subtly as in Catallus, a poet might obscure an enemy’s identity in metaphor, as is likely in H.D.’s "Helen," which describes the face that launched a thousand ships, the face that "all Greece hates." Or turning the clichés of Renaissance odes upside down, Billy Collins writes in "Litany":
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine...
However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way you are the pine-scented air.
For other poems for enemies, consider the following:
"Epitaph on a Tyrant" by W.H. Auden
"Enemies" by Wendell Berry
"A Divine Image" by William Blake
"A Poison Tree" by William Blake
"XXI" by Catullus
"XLIX" by Catullus
"Jealousy" by Henri Cole
"Litany" by Billy Collins
"Mine Enemy is Growing Old" by Emily Dickinson
"The Apparition" by John Donne
"To a Terrorist" by Stephen Dunn
"Helen" by H.D.
"I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day" by Gerard Manley Hopkins
The Epodes of Horace
"A Curse on a Thief" by X.J. Kennedy
"Fletcher McGee" by Edgar Lee Masters
"Only Cherries?" by Kennth Patchen
"A Pact" by Ezra Pound
"I Will Write Songs Against You" by Charles Reznikoff
"God" by Isaac Rosenberg
Sonnet 138 by William Shakespeare
"Slander" by Franz Wright