StreetWrites Workshop for Writing Out of the Margins

The Quality of Insult Is Not Strained

Two of the most commonly used techniques in the modern poetic Rant or Letter to the Editor are Invective and Ridicule.

Invective (from A Glossary of Literary Terms by Robert Harris)
Speech or writing that abuses, denounces, or vituperates against. It can be directed against a person, cause, idea, or system. It employs a heavy use of negative emotive language.
Example: "I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth."—Jonathan Swift

High invective, depending on formal language and creative expression, creates an entirely different impression than low invective, which depends primarily on the shock value of stock words and images. While creative use of slang, and especially multilingual cursing, has its admirers, most connoisseurs consider really well-done invective an art form in which the use of common swear words is cliché. As Swift's line shows, an opponent can be thoroughly smeared without the use of one four-letter word.

Well and thoroughly done, as in the old Bardic Satires and Irish Insults and Jonathan Swift's quote above, dramatic invective can become fascinating, almost beautiful to behold. It can be a satisfying emotional release for the speaker and, vicariously, for the reader, especially in times of frustration, as when addressing idiots in a position of power and other annoyances that won't go away, like commercials and teenagers.

Invective is not, however, a powerful tool of persuasion. Ridicule has sometimes shamed an opponent into altering their position, but invective usually polarizes and hardens positions instead. Some audiences automatically reject all invective. They will refuse to read or listen to it, and will discount any argument you are making with it, on the premise that if you had any facts to use you wouldn't be throwing insults. Those who are uncommitted are just as likely to be won over to the defense of the person you are attacking, as to be won over to your side by the strength of your attack.

Invective is most useful in "preaching to the converted": reinforcing an already-existing attitude, creating solidarity and emotional identification, intensifying emotions to drive action. It may also be used to provoke a reaction. Demonstrators who taunt the police or politicians, for example, are often doing both.

Discussion Questions:
  1. The literary form of "rant", usually found at Open Mics and Poetry Slams, makes much use of invective. So do demagogues. What other examples can you list?
  2. No one would use invective if they did not consider it useful. What do you think are the effects of invective? Is it entertaining? Emotionally satisfying? How effective is it at making a point?
  3. Quote an example of invective. What do you think are its effects?
  4. What would you use invective for?
  5. Do you think that people (voters, mobs, etc.) are sometimes overly influenced by invective? How can that influence be countered?
  1. Write a short rant or other passage of invective — even if you do not consider this to be useful. (There is more virtue in being able to do a thing, and refraining, than in not being able to do it, and refraining.)
  2. How did you feel after writing this?
Critique Guidelines:
  1. THIS IS AN EXERCISE, DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. Whatever invective anyone posts, please limit your comments to the style and estimated effect. Arguments over the content and target of the invective are not the purpose of the exercise.
  2. Was this strong invective, or weak?
  3. As in the old Bardic Satires and Irish Insults, and Jonathan Swift's quote above, really dramatic invective often becomes fascinating, almost beautiful to behold. Did this reach that level?

Rant Parody Technique Satire Old Forms & New
Invective Burlesque Irony Juvenalian Satire The Novel of Manners
Ridicule Travesty Hyperbole Bardic Satire The Picaresque Novel
  Mock Epic Understatement Lampoon The Wessitur
  Pastiche Oxymoron Sarcasm
    Tone Horatian Satire

Write On!
Anitra L. Freeman

All contents and images are created and copyrighted by Anitra Freeman, except quotes from published material, which are attributed to the author and used only for educational purposes. Others may use this material, on request, for personal or educational purposes where no fee is charged, with credit to the author and a link wherever possible.

StreetWrites Workshop Exercises