On Being Asked to Contribute to the Villains Feature

By Richard Cecil

Featured Art by Odilon Redon

I searched ten years of word files looking for
titles with names of politicians who
enrich the rich while trampling down the poor
and corporate criminal CEOs who screw
employees out of wages, rape the Earth,
and hide their stolen billions far offshore,
and drew a blank. I also found a dearth
of killer clowns and warlords steeped in gore,
religious rabble rousers, nasty nuns,
child-abusing Catholic priests—zero.
No bought congressmen who vote pro-gun;
no homicidal patriotic heroes.
What’s blinded me to monsters all those years?
The Frankenstein inside. It’s him I fear.

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Villainous Villanelle

By Denise Duhamel

My id spits and licks his lips, trips my conscience,
my ego, Miss Goody Two Shoes.
Her neon pink laces make him nauseous.

My ego finds my id monstrous—
His red face is bulbous. He reeks of booze
as he spits and licks his lips, trips my conscience

and my allegiance is split. My id’s obnoxious,
full of tattoos, a shower long overdue.
But my ego’s pink laces make me nauseous.

My ego and id live in a province
of my psyche, battling to be my muse.
My id spits and licks his lips, trips my conscience.

He tells me evil is the only constant,
that villains are cool. Who needs society’s rules?
My neon pink laces make him nauseous.

I go to a shrink to check my noggin.
Her pantsuit is blue. Her couch is chartreuse.
I spit and lick my lips. She trips my subconscious.
Her neon pink briefcase makes me nauseous.

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Milton’s Satan and the Grammar of Evil

By Kimberly Johnson

In the long tradition of literary villains, no figure towers with such gleeful, scene- chomping menace as the character of Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Satan the arch-fiend, the über-villain, elaborated out of the bare-bones narrative of Genesis by New Testament writers into a primeval malevolence that Milton combined with epically heroic qualities. Satan the dauntless, who in the first book of Milton’s opus strides imperiously across the lake of burning marl, rallying his vanquished followers to a brave resurgence against God’s favorite creation. Satan the guileful, who seduces Eve into humanity’s “First Disobedience” (1.1). The plot of Paradise Lost offers plenty of opportunity for Satan to scheme, beguile, attack, and otherwise subvert the designs of Milton’s God. But I’d suggest that such narrative exploits are mere caricatures of evil, and distract from Satan’s most damnable offense, which inheres not in any particular action in his own interest or against God’s. Rather, Satan falls under the text’s greatest condemnation for his refusal to act as a morally self-determined agent. In Milton’s poem, Satan exposes his deepest villainy in his denial of his own agency. 

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The Pleasure of Browning’s Villains

By Robert Cording

As an undergraduate in a state college, I read an essay by Howard Moss, a poet I admired and the poetry editor of The New Yorker  at that time. Though   his advice was of the usual “learn the tradition” school, what Moss said about writing poems struck my insecure hyperconscious-of my-poorly-educated self hard—he said, unless a poet knew the poems of the past, that poet was bound to repeat what another poet had already done better. Solid, but obvious advice that, nevertheless, I took deeply to heart. And so I went off to graduate school in English in 1972, closeting, like many of my fellow graduate students, my desire to be a writer inside the more mainline pursuit of a doctoral degree. In an early Victorian literature class, I first read Robert Browning. I was writing persona poems, trying to find my own voice by assuming the guise of others. Struck by the energy of Browning’s dramatic monologues, I began to think about the way he appropriated first-person narration and about the way his poems worked dramatically, through their plots.

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The Villain Who Shut Down an Epic

By Jeanne Murray Walker

Recently, as I was on the way back from our usual early morning at the gym, I told my husband that the editors of New Ohio Review had asked me to write a piece about a villain in a poem.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, it’s interesting, don’t you think, that poems might have villains? Like murder mysteries?”

“Oh, I get it,” he said. “In Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall,’ the villain is the wall.”

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Maker and Prophet: Frank Bidart and the Mask of “Herbert White”

By Mario Chard

Looking at Frank Bidart’s “Herbert White” always horrifies. The art is extreme, a mode Bidart has suggested he prefers. And why? Because he gives voice to a monster, the worst kind, a necrophiliac, a rapist and murderer of young girls. And because White’s voice is at once human, demotic, stupid even (“What the shit?”), and elevated (“how I wanted to see beneath it, cut // beneath it, and make it / somehow, come alive”), often shifting our attention the way a character’s voice can when it suddenly turns to eloquence, we get the sense of another meaning behind the words themselves, another presence.

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The Unredeemed Villain?: Ai’s “Child Beater”

By Denise Duhamel

So often we are drawn to literary villains because of our shadow selves, parts of us so ugly, selfish, or antisocial we repress them. Sometimes we even find ourselves rooting for the villain—if we can’t be the heroes, we can at least find release in cackling along with Captain Hook, Tom Ripley, Hannibal Lecter, or the Joker. And we often can’t help but identify with those villains who are written with empathy and complexity.

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Villains of Confessionalism

By Kathryn Nuernberger

William Blake, reflecting on how much readers tend to prefer that old villainous anti-hero Satan to any of the good guys in Paradise Lost, remarked, “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”

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“Guilt Is Magical”: Adultery as Poetic Villainy

By Catherine Pierce

The best villains—or at least the most compelling—are those who own their villainy, and, in owning it, reckon with it. And the most compelling poems tend to be those that do the same kind of reckoning; as Yeats famously wrote, “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

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