This summer, Avidly is periodically shifting to a mode better described as Rabidly. This series is curated by Brian Connolly and Lara Langer Cohen, who describe their philosophy of rabidity here.
Ad Homonym (After Mallarmé)
Nothing, this poem, this virgin curse,
Pronouncing only itself: give up
Far-off desires, in which, upending sirens,
You drown, inverted and worse
Off for having navigated them alone.
Friends once, we intolerate,
Myself already grown aloof,
While you, astride the prow
—pulpit, lectern, or paper sheaf—
summon wintry wave and lightning burst
Spurring total inundation.
Peerless, I stand and offer you this curse—
Solitude, scorn, or indignation—
To whatsoever may uphold
The bright star of your unguided fancy.
The poet, we know, is a mercurial sort. Gazing up from her freshly tailored verse, she scowls. Her pen lifts from the page and her brow darkens, its folds hardening. It is not creative angst that ruts her brow, dear reader, so much as envy, jealousy, despair, and rage. The Muse of Spite has inspired yet another outburst: the rejected grant, the rescinded invitation, the coveted publication prize mis-awarded to that credit-craving hack from Brooklyn, the escalating polemic with a rival School. “Rest and look at this goddamned wheelbarrow,” Jack Spicer (1925 – 1965) tells us in his rival, canon-bashing version of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” More than any powerful surge of romantic longing, it may be hate itself that fuels the poet’s pen.
This Little Brass Treasury collects the finest specimens of that deep well of loathing from which the poetic soul has forever mined its richest treasures. Too long have we subjected ourselves to the listless petals of the love poem, the elegy, the meandering ode. Their couplets litter church-aisles and dance-floors; they are trampled underfoot beneath every banquet table and school desk. In what remains of our bookstores, we still find dreary little anthologies of love poems somewhere in the vicinity the self-help section, alongside collections of wedding poems, the 100 greatest poems of all time, another book by Harold Bloom, the Norton Anthology.
Here instead are poems you can unremorsefully put to use. The Little Brass Treasury of Hate Poems presents the purest distillation of sentiments that, like love, are often experienced wordlessly. We are not brutes. Let the lovelorn fondle their tongueless despair; let anxious wedding-guests paw through millennia of hackneyed sentiment. Here, for your use and delectation, are the sharpened instruments of rejection and refusal, the polished stones of bitter feeling. Like a helpful fist, you can clutch these poems inside your pocket as you gird up for another day in the marketplace of ideas. Keep this book by your bedside, or page through it from the warm recesses of a comfortable chair: the poems will be near at hand as you stomach yet another staff retreat, or contemplate yet another drive along the franchise-strips that conjoin your own grey suburb with its neighbor.
The history of hate poetry has been largely scoured from living memory. The lines composed by Lilith are not extant; it is unlikely that they were ever recorded, apart from the scars they left on Adam’s heart. Adam may have choked on Lilith’s words, but the words themselves are forever lost; only the half-consumed fruit remains. Nor do we know the lines Cain whispered to himself the night before he smote his brother with a rock. Our inner ear can only conjure the distant strains of Esau’s musical oaths. The Cynics, for their part, were neither rife with spite nor, as far as we know, prone to verse; and so it is to the Epic of Gilgamesh and the epics of Homer that we must look for a poetic record of the earliest ragings of the gods, the earliest studied hatreds of humankind.
Such offerings suggest that hatred can be more keenly exercised than owned. Of the rage of Achilles we know all too much; throughout the war’s protracted violence, we hear much of his anguish, his bereavement. But of hate itself, the intimations are more veiled: what did Helen think of Menelaus? Consider, too, the long-harbored spite of Circe (in the Odyssey), or the petty effronteries of the gods. To the discredit of the classical age, we find the acts of war disguised as grandeur. We must thus look elsewhere for more pristine expressions of hate itself. In the great Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, one of the balder sentiments is so pristine as to harbor no animate cause at all. The hero’s trusted phantasm Enkidu vents his spleen against, of all things, a firmly locked door:
‘Now, O door, it was I who fashioned you, who lifted you up:
can I now [break you up, can I] now tear you down?
May a king who comes after me bear for you hatred,
or …. Hang you [where you cannot be seen.]
may he remove my name and write upon you his own!’
Enkidu hates on the door he built himself, comporting himself with terrific eloquence even as he threatens to kick it in. Only here, in the marginal subplots of the epic, do we glean the true extent to which the heroes of myth and epic may be as fueled by animosity as the poets were themselves.
Such hatred as Enkido’s is helpfully abstracted from human entanglement; there is no vendetta here, no blanket opposition. Its vinegar distilled, hate becomes a formal exercise, its object nothing short of arbitrary.
We thus lay aside the splendid epic. Turning to the anonymous verse of lore and custom, we find some of the purest forms of lyric hate. A witch’s curse, for instance, often outlines a history of crime and vengeance, its details dulled but unforgotten. In one tale, the stray bone of a young man slain by his elder brother becomes a whistle which, when blown, sings of the brother’s misdeeds. Here is Abel’s song of righteous hate, if not Cain’s. But instead of sentiment, we find the hardened forms— a curse, a bone— of reciprocity. In popular verse the work of hate is exercised in absolute and purely formal terms. Life itself, it seems, doth hate on man:
“The Man of Double Deed”
There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
‘Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
‘Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
‘Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
‘Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
‘Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
‘Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
‘Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
‘Twas death, and death, and death indeed.
Man delights not me, the poem claims, nor woman neither. The mortal telos is inescapable: the “double deed” is life itself, and likewise death. But to their ineluctable two-step the poem has added its own embellishments: lack, loss, deprivation, agony. The heart stabbed with a petty little penknife; a beltless ship, sailing off. To the logical pairing of life and death— and of death and death indeed, death’s mirror image of itself— the poem has added a welter of painful transformations. This is what the Greeks might simply call the work of nature, physis; it is what the poet knows as hate.
We find a more pointedly intended version in the old nursery rhyme that assures the little baby of its impending fate:
Hush-a-bye, baby, on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall;
Down will come baby, cradle and all.
As a lullaby, the poem takes no sadistic joy in its cruel denouement; we all share in the lament. “There’s nothing at the end of the rainbow,” sings the English folk singer Richard Thomson, “there’s nothing to grow up for anymore.” Life itself is hateful.
Yet we have already begun to stray from our theme. William Blake sets us back upon the bitter path. In “A Poison Tree” the philosophical abstraction to which our folk-verse leads us has been painstakingly redirected. Blake’s poem, a rewriting of “The Man of Double Deed,” insinuates the earlier poem’s cycle of growth and death with a series of deliberate aggressions:
A Poison Tree
By William Blake (1757-1827)
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 water’d it in fears,
Night & 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 veil’d the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
No longer is it “man” whose every deed is doubled by the cruel reality of death; here, it is “wrath” that grows and, nurtured by sentiment, bears the gleaming fruit of hate itself. Notably, Blake’s tenderly husbanded crop is otherwise self-contained, autonomous. Its mortal taste is the fruit of its consumption, not its growth. Death requires a second act: the foe’s covetous intrusion and theft is the double deed that seals his fate. For Blake, hate is not a projectile; it is a cherished object, the fruit— not the sharpened branches— of the forbidden tree.
For Gwendolyn Bennett (1902-1981), by contrast, hate takes on projectile form from the very start: in “Hatred,” her speaker proposes to “hate you/ Like a dart of singing steel/ Shot through still air.” A projectile of double deed, her eponymous hatred shoots both words and arrows: I shall hate you, she promises.
By Gwendolyn Bennett
I shall hate you
Like a dart of singing steel
Shot through still air
As pines are sober
When they stand etched
Against the sky.
Hating you shall be a game
Played with cool hands
And slim fingers.
Your heart will yearn
For the lonely splendor
Of the pine tree
While rekindled fires
In my eyes
Shall wound you like swift arrows.
Memory will lay its hands
Upon your breast
And you will understand
No less recursively than Blake’s, the final verses of Bennett’s poem gather up the weaponry deployed in its opening proposition. The poem leads our readers’ eye from stretched bow to wounded target, the sober pine and singing steel hastening a strictly metaphorical death. Indeed, the “death” of Bennett’s double deed is the work of memory, not slaughter; it is memory that lays its hands upon your breast. With Bennett addressing you, one can only wonder what it is you must have done.
Published in Opportunity magazine in 1926, Bennett’s poem addresses a “you” with decided historical coordinates: a “you” whose hand in the repressive history of American race relations was sullied by the violence of Jim Crow laws, lynching, and systematic racism. Bennett’s hatred targets a political rather than personal or even abstract object; unlike Blake, she seeks not to cultivate that object, but to polish her weaponry in order to hate on oppression itself as “a game/Played with cool hands.”
Bennett’s poem received an honorable mention in Opportunity’s poetry contest; one can only speculate as to whether the judges may accidentally have caught sight of their own reflections in the poem as they awarded the prizes.
The notion of hatred as a force of political will animates a more recent poem, likewise titled “Hatred,” by the 1996 Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012). Here, though, hatred designates not the sport of the righteous but the very will to power itself, the living force of atrocity and domination:
Above all, it never tires
of its leitmotif – the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.
Hate, for Szymborska, is less a double deed than a rampant narcissist — a “master of contrast” with poor taste in decoration.
The comic poet Ogden Nash (1902 – 1971) offers a dialectical inversion of Szymborska’s “master of contrast,” drumming up fascists as fodder for the cannons of love. As he writes in his war-era ditty “To My Valentine”:
More than a catbird hates a cat,
Or a criminal hates a clue,
Or the Axis hates the United States,
That’s how much I love you.
Writing after the war, the short-lived Frank O’Hara (1926 –1966) extrapolates Nash’s hyperbole as the general condition of the world. Thus, channeling Baudelaire in “Spleen,” he writes:
I know so much about things I accept so much it’s like vomiting.
And I am nourished by the shabbiness of my knowing so much about others and what they do and accepting so much that I hate as if I didn’t know what it is to me.
And what it is to them I know and hate.
Where once we had the Greeks railing against physis, the hatefulness of nature, we now have O’Hara stewing over logos: hatred is a problem of knowing. O’Hara’s tangled syntax forces us to parse out the shabbiness of our knowing; what is it we accept?
As if in prophylactic anticipation, Dorothy Parker (1893 –1967) proposes suicide (an option she entertained on several occasions). Writing her “résumé” in the year of O’Hara’s birth— and of Bennett’s Honorable Mention— she exercises reluctant good judgment in concluding that suicide’s means are far less satisfying than our “shabby” knowledge could ever be:
By Dorothy Parker
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
As a poet, Dorothy Parker belongs to a special category of haters, the patently antisocial. The loathing in Parker’s verse is so universally directed as to incorporate the poet herself; Parker takes a bite from the fruit of her own poison tree. In “Résumé,” however, this hatred extends to the very means by which a suicidal resolution of this condition might be achieved. Like Enkidu in Gilgamesh, she hates on the very portal. Death isn’t worth the trouble of ushering in the second of its double deeds.
For centuries, the no less antisocial English poet Alexander Pope (1688 –1744) has been canonized as one of the more celebrated haters in Western Culture who, like Parker, directed much of his animosity against women. Unlike Parker, Pope was not himself a woman; but he enjoyed hating on them all the same. In his venomous satires we find the roots of every contemporary fashion pundit or twitterverse critic of the Kardashians, only in exquisitely rhyming couplets. Here he is lampooning the vanity of “The Rape of the Lock:”
And now, unveil’d, the Toilet stands display’d,
Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid.
First, rob’d in White, the Nymph intent adores
With Head uncover’d, the cosmetic Pow’rs.
A heav’nly Image in the Glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears;
Th’ inferior Priestess, at her Altar’s side,
Trembling, begins the sacred Rites of Pride.
We shall spare you, for now, that inventory. Though perhaps a model for many, Pope was nonetheless a loathsome prick, and thus we shall swiftly relegate him to the confines of his own “game/ Played with cool hands,” as Bennett puts it.
Philip Larkin (1922 –1985), while perhaps no less a prick than Pope, nonetheless spoke the sterling truth when he wrote, in “This Be the Verse”:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you.
For Larkin, the poison tree is a family tree.
Painfully aware of her place in any such family tree, Anne Sexton (1928 — 1974), warns us in her “Admonitions for a Special Person”:
Watch out for power,
for its avalanche can bury you,
snow, snow, snow, smothering your mountain.
Watch out for hate,
it can open its mouth and you’ll fling yourself out
to eat off your leg, an instant leper.
Sexton fought hard against hate, though in the end, tragically, she ended up heeding only the first half of Larkin’s counsel to “Get out as early as you can/ And don’t have any kids yourself.”
There is righteous hate, and there is poisonous hate— the hatred of racism, sexism, xenophobia, intolerance, genocide, and television advertising. These poems, whether well intentioned or evil, are usually unreadable. Should you choose, you can read some of the more wrenching hate poems here: http://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poems/sad/hate/
The internet has afforded us a new medium for disclosing the hatefulness of poetry. From the comfort of your home computer, you can now conduct a word search for handy poems to express your every hatred. Feeling slighted by a lover? Have you been abandoned at the altar? No longer is it necessary to husband your wrath, to sun and water it with woe and wiles; you can simply point and click. Cheating girlfriend and/or wife? Try this one:
You are not worthy
Of a diamond ring
You are actually not worthy
You are not worthy
Of a second of my time
You are not worthy
Of even a single dime
You are not worthy
Of being given a second glance
You are not worthy
Of getting a second chance
I hate you
Cheating boyfriend and/or husband? Perhaps this one:
16) Have you taken a master’s degree
For learning how to cheat and betray
Because you seem to be an expert at it
That much, I must confess and say
If I knew that you had graduated
With a degree of Masters in Cheating
Then I would have never fallen in love with you
And allowed my heart to take a beating
I hate you
Categorized by number, such ready selections offer a tidy catalogue of rhyming zingers to IM the object of your wrath. Along the way, he or she may marvel at the intricacy of “your” rhymes (expert at it/ graduated is a particular fancy of mine). The imaginative possibilities of such conversations by proxy are endless. Even in exchanging borrowed verse, the “game/Played with cool hands” is afoot. However bitter the taste, swapping poems with your ex still comprises a form of devotion, if not the doorway to art. The aim of this Little Brass Treasury is to help you break down that door.
Jonathan Eburne: Eats with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls.
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The “Lady’s Dressing Room” is not by Alexander Pope. It is by Jonathan Swift, whom some feminist critics have deemed a friend to women.
Thanks, Helen! I’d originally meant to use “The Rape of the Lock” and clearly got distracted. The rightful (!) poem has been restored. Thanks for pointing out the gaffe.