Every poem has a villain. From the gentlest haiku to the stormiest saga. Yet, I've the feeling many poets (myself included) seldom reflect deeply enough on this aspect of poetry. That's understandable -- there are simply too many other fascinating (read: less prosaic) facets of a poem to consider than the banal concept of antagonist. Villains are for novels, stories, comics, and movies!
Well, they're also for poems. Some are very easy to find, such as Plath's titular "Daddy," or mortality in Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay. " Some villains are archetypal, like Poe's Raven, while others are deeply specific, such as Katharyn Howd Machan's "On Learning That My Daughter’s Rapist Has Been Taught to Write a Poem."
Even when you think a poem has no antagonist, it usually does. Take a poem like James Dickey's "The Dusk of Horses." Read as a pastorale, the poem seems enemy-free. The tip-off is the opening words "Right under their noses..." This shows that something has been hidden. The antagonist is implied in the act of "blinding." Of course, we all know this poem is an allegory for political apathy, right?
Let's look at a poem where the antagonist might be a bit harder to find. A full poem. A famous poem. This poem:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I'm sure you're now saying, "The antagonist in Pound's poem is also mortality. So it wasn't hard to find." Well I beg to differ. I think the antagonist in this poem is the "apparition" of life, the veil of it. Which tells us that the "black bough" is where the real action is.
This is all quite easy to follow. The real question is: how can you use villains in your poems? The answer is astoundingly straightforward: just do it. But try to think outside the box. And be careful not to let your villain take over your poem.
Here's a few tips on poetic villains that should even work for prose writers:
I make the same plea to you!