Saturday, June 30, 2012

Poetry Prompt #107 – Invective Poems

There’s much to be said about writing an invective – telling someone or something off using written rather than vocal language. In literature, an invective is an angry, critical or abusive tirade directed at someone or something. For example, here’s an invective by Shakespeare: “A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir to a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deni'st the least syllable of thy addition.” (from The Tragedy of King Lear, II.2)

Invective poetry is rooted in ancient Greece, but the genre gained its greatest popularity in ancient Rome. Originally, invective poems included denunciatory or abusive language that attacked political and public figures with a somewhat sardonic or satirical tone. Most early invectives were written anonymously; however, Catullus, Cicero, and Juvenal publicly “owned” the invectives they wrote (some of which, especially by Catullus, are quite explicit). Of course, early invectives had a rhetorical context and a hermeneutic that have been lost, and today’s invective poems are usually presented in the spirit of lampoons (poetic burlesque).

One well-known invective poem is "Invective Against Swans" by Wallace Stevens.

Another is the moralistic "An Invective Against Gold" by Anne Kelligrew, written during the 1600s.

My absolute favorite invective poem is “Invective Against the Bumblebee” written by New Jersey poet Diane Lockward (from her prize-winning book “What Feeds Us”).  Click here to order What Feeds Us.

The poem (reprinted by permission of the author) follows.

By Diane Lockward

Escapee from a tight cell, yellow-streaked, 
sex-deprived sycophant to a queen,
you have dug divots in my yard
and like a squatter trespassed in my garage.

I despise you for you have swooped down
on my baby boy, harmless on a blanket of lawn,
his belly plumping through his orange stretch suit,
yellow hat over the fuzz of his head.
Though you mistook him for a sunflower, 
I do not exonerate you,
for he weeps in my arms, trembles, and drools,
finger swollen like a breakfast sausage.
Now my son knows pain.
Now he fears the grass.

Fat-assed insect! Perverse pedagogue! 
Henceforth, may flowers refuse to open for you.
May cats chase you in the garden.
I want you shellacked by rain, pecked by shrikes,
mauled by skunks, paralyzed by early frost.
May farmers douse your wings with pesticide.
May you never again taste the nectar 
of purple clover or honeysuckle.
May you pass by an oak tree just in time 
to be pissed on by a dog.

And tomorrow may you rest on my table 
as I peruse the paper. May you shake 
beneath the scarred face of a serial killer.
May you be crushed by the morning news.

Now … who or what has made you angry? Has there been a memorable anger-inducing person or event in your life? Write an invective poem in which you give someone or something the proverbial “hell.” Consider both humor and fury. Stamp your metaphorical feet, shout in written language, and write your rage.


  1. Brava Adele! We all need to vent! And I love Diane Lockward's poem! Her reading of it is fantastic - made me want to swat that bee! Fury and fun this week!


    1. Thanks, Jamie! Diane's invective is a great poem - so glad you like it (and the prompt)!

  2. Great prompt and a great poem by Diane Lockward as your main example. Blog readers, be sure to click on the link to hear Diane read the poem! I've heard her read it in person, and it's really fun to hear the poem in the poet's voice!

    1. Thanks, Bob! Yes, hearing Diane read the poem is special!

  3. 55 and Older

    Her eyes tearing up
    The elder AARP representative
    with dyed thinning red hair
    basically said
    "There's no room at the inn"
    There's no money here
    There's no help
    No job
    No hope
    Your only option is to die
    And do it quickly
    Dedicate your body to science
    There are no funds
    to bury you
    At least you will serve
    a purpose then

    1. A scary thought, Risa, but one we all have to consider. Thanks so much for sharing!

    2. Thanks, Risa, for sharing another of your poems with us! I look forward to reading your "poem of the week!"


    3. Risa, I really like your poem. And it is true that is better dedicate our bodies to science. But now it seems there is a problem: I would donate my body to, but ...

      "In order for us to properly manage our donation program and serve our existing donors, we regretfully inform you that we are unable to accept new donations at this time. The program has simply reached its capacity and we are indefinitely stopping the acceptance of new donor applications."

      to say I can't die now!

    4. Hello! Funny! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Wonderful once again, Adele!

    (We Irish are good at invectives - fast and fiery tempers!)

    I don't always comment, but I do read your prompts every week and enjoy them immensely. Like Jamie, I look forward to poem comments from Risa and Jago.

    Máire Ó Cathail (Ireland)

    1. Thanks, Maire! Being half Irish, I know about the fiery Irish temper! It's really nice to know that you're enjoying the posts!

  5. Adele!!!
    Great prompt! And I love Diane Lockward's reading; it seem just like an "invective" lullaby....

    1. Thanks, Jago!

      It's always good to hear from you, and your comments are much appreciated.

      What a great way to describe Diane's reading, "an invective lullaby."

  6. I wrote mine -- had to think on it for awhile. I exorcised some demons. :)

    1. Wonderful, Annette! I'm glad to know that you were able to exorcise some demons in a poem! Thanks so much for sharing!

  7. Weeelll, wonderful invective - but you're on a hiding to nothing: without bees, no food. Still, no doubt you felt much better after writing this poem!

    Mine's not so much invective; more of a cri de coeur.


    If you were young again
    what would you do?
    Huge plans? Enormous projects?
    Or save the planet, a little at a time?

    I would banish packaging
    you know the sort of thing
    the printer ink
    inside a rigid plastic prison,
    encased in triple cardboard
    and a plastic outer;
    the two pork chops
    in polystyrene enclosed in film;
    the new tool you need a new tool to open.

    What’s wrong with re-usable
    recycled paper bags?

    I’d start a campaign
    to save the world
    little by little.
    That’s what I would do
    if I were young again.

  8. LOL! I write a lot of political limericks. Needless to say, most of them would qualify as invective poems. :)

    Here's my latest:
    Open Limerick To House Republicans

    House Republicans, kindly get real:
    Your big focus is health care repeal—
    Over thirty such votes!
    Where’s your bill that promotes
    “Jobs, jobs, jobs” with equivalent zeal?