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Some Satirical Epigrams

in hendecasyllabics (essentially trochaic pentameter with a dactyl for the second foot)

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Complaint to a Complainer

You complain all the time; about the weather,
Other peoples’ affairs, your job, your pillow;
So much so that it seems you’re only happy
When you’re whining about one varnished grievance
Or another. And now you grouse that none will
Cough up sympathy, but your rayless mood is
So morose, your condition so degraded,
That our pity could only spoil your party.

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Dinner with a Smartphone Addict

You would sooner eruct a rabid lecture
On the pitiful state of things in some place
You’ve not seen, or else muse at length on matters
Well beyond your own bovine understanding
Than admit you slough hours on end just staring
Blankly into that bastard scrap of black glass.
Telephones should be means to conversation;
Sadly though, it seems yours does all the talking.

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A Commissar in Writing

Every bureaucrat craves the taste of warm blood.
Don’t be fooled by the sniveling demeanor,
Pervert’s eyes or the water in his wan voice;
Hid behind the obsequious facade are
Horrors born of banality and grudges
Nursed to cosmic proportions, dreaming of that
Dreadful day when those ink-stained fingers need but
Sign his name for the world to cringe in terror.

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The Not-So-Subtle Art of Being
an Artist

Your rehearsed eccentricities are artful
In themselves, and the ease with which you mouth such
Smug mundanities paints a perfect picture
Of the kind of poseur adored by critics.
What a shame that, at best, your art is just a
Fey and facile pastiche of last year’s fashion,
But, while all might deride your daubings, take heart:
Fame awaits on the stage – behind a red nose.

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A Feminist Observes Her Husband

All that anger compressed into her cold smile,
While he stammers about computer games and
Superheroes, has nowhere else to settle;
She despises his voice, his hair, his presence,
But adores his incompetence, which slakes her
Thirst for martyrdom and, in his own sad and
Puerile fashion, he has become at least some
Substitute for the child she’ll never bear him.

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Apologia

Oh, how cruel, you all cry, to mock these poor souls;
You exaggerate their most human failings
Past the point of absurdity, to grift some
Cheap delight for your origami ego.
I’ll admit that we poets are a pack of
Smooth-tongued sophists who’ll lie to service “truth”, and
That each pebble I cast lambastes my glass house,
But the breeze wafting in redeems the ripe air.

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Shaun C. Duncan is a picture framer and fine art printer who lives in Adelaide, South Australia.


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12 Responses

  1. Margaret Coats

    These are painstaking observations presented as if each were a professional character diagnosis. I like the first three, especially, because of the witty and pointed summary line. Polished little cameos, as epigrams should be!

    I won’t fuss with your calling these hendecasyllabics, since you do count syllables and get eleven. But to my ear, these are neither “essentially trochaic” nor “pentameter,” and I believe you should re-think the subsidiary analysis, and perhaps omit it. As I read these in my usual American pronunciation, I get four or three accents for most lines. Not pentameter, and not trochaic because, very often, the initial syllable is too lightly stressed to establish a pattern that makes me read the whole by beginning each line with an accent.

    I understand your struggle to use syllabics and describe what you’re doing, because I have tried to translate Italian hendecasyllabics. None of my attempts in English hendecasyllables have been thoroughly satisfactory.

    Your problem here, I think, is that readers may consider you are chopping prose into 11-syllable groups rather than creating a discernible metrical effect. I see you’re trying to avoid that impression by dividing such that each line makes sense as a line. That does work well here, and you deserve credit for it. There are just a few lines where I wonder why that last word belongs there. Keep up the good work, and maybe apply a little more polish if you continue writing these.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you for the comments and suggestions, Margaret. I have followed Lewis Turco’s description of hendecasyllabics as being lines composed trochee/dactyl/trochee/trochee/trochee with occasional spondees allowed for the final foot. Yes, it’s difficult to cram readable English into that scheme and I’m aware that several of the first syllables are a little soft but I tried to keep the majority of them solid, hoping that would be enough to keep the meter regular. For better or worse though, English seems to be iambic by nature so despite the fact those syllables fit the meter so far as the natural flow of the language goes, I suspect the ear has little tolerance for weakness in those intial feet.

      “Pentameter” was not my word (Evan added the note at the start) but I see no reason to take issue with it. You’d be hard pressed to find a line of iambic pentameter with more than three or four stresses.

      Reply
  2. Margaret Coats

    The category “Blank Verse” should be omitted in the post heading, because blank verse is defined as unrhymed iambic pentameter. The category “Epigrams and Proverbs” is apropos.

    Reply
  3. Joshua C. Frank

    Thank you for explaining the meter; I was having a hard time determining it otherwise.

    My favorite of these is “A Feminist Observes Her Husband.” It summarizes precisely what those odious shrews think of men, especially if they happen to be married to one. My favorite line is “… he has become at least some/Substitute for the child she’ll never bear him.” When we repress our God-given nature like that, it will reassert itself in some way!

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Joshua. I wrote these as an excersise in working with an ancient meter. It was fun, but it feels quite unnatural (I had write the scansion at the top of each page while I was working on them) and I found it to be something of a relief to get back to iambics once I’d finished with them.

      One of the ironies of feminism (and there are many) is that the low expectations many women have of men these days has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. And yes, our God-given nature will win out – witness the rise of “fur babies.”

      Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Shaun, these are fantastically good satiric epigrams. They pull me right back to Catullus and Martial with their cold and pungent savagery, the sheer contempt for their targets, and the utter lack of concern for “reader response.”

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the meter — for me, it goes into English with the following stress scheme:

    / / / x x / x / x / x

    Your rehearsed eccentricities are artful

    (DUM-DUM-DUM-dah-dah-DUM-dah-DUM-dah-DUM-dah)

    It’s not the easiest kind of meter in English, but it has all the flavor of Latin verse, and it goes perfectly with the anger and and ferocity of the overall tone. The three heavy stresses at the beginning of each line smack the reader like a sledgehammer:

    YOU COMPLAIN
    COUGH UP SYM-
    DON’T BE FOOLED
    CHEAP DELIGHT

    And Shaun — “bastard scrap of black glass” is one amazing metaphor for the horrid FLHHDs that are everywhere.

    This is precisely the kind of hard, cold, take-no-prisoners poetry that we need today.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Joe. Catullus and particularly Martial were my models for these. I can’t read Latin (I’ve translated one of Martial’s epigrams and half a poem by Luxorius) but I was quite content to aim for the cool, detached quality you often find in translations by academics. I’ve always liked the way that combines with invective. I’m glad you like the phrase “bastard scrap of black glass.” For centuries occultists have supposedly used black glass in their attempts to conjure demons. Make of that what you will.

      Thank you also for your thoughts on the meter – you’ve given me something to work with moving forward. I feel like I stumbled my way through these to some extent, but I have a much better idea of what works and what doesn’t now.

      Reply
  5. Monika Cooper

    I like them, Shaun, and you are brave to venture away from iambs.

    The last line of “Dinner with a Smartphone Addict” made me laugh. Telephones certainly aren’t what they used to be and, as with many things, I miss what they used to be.

    Your line of work must give you unique chances to observe “The Not-So-Subtle Art of Being an Artist” and notice all the weakest places in some fragilely constructed selves. (I’ve also been catching up on some of your “artist” poems from the new Journal.)

    Which brings me to “Apologia,” your beautiful non-apology. I love “origami ego” and the way you take a jab at us poets and your own glass house. Satire that lacks self-satire risks total insufferability.

    I agree with Joe above: they have a Latin verse feel. I hope you write more.

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Monika. I’ll definitely write more of these – it’s a fun exercise to take on in between the longer pieces I tend to write. Working with different meters is an enjoyable challenge too and I can’t help but feel it’ll ultimately result in a greater mastery of iambs. We’ll see though.

      I’m glad I made you laugh! I find them funny, but I know my sense of humour is blacker than most so I was a little unsure of how these would be taken. The closing line of “Smartphone Addict” makes a point I don’t feel is discussed often enough with technology – namely that on the odd occasions where you can drag these people away from their screens they have nothing at all to say that doesn’t involve the online world. Any personality they once had has been completely sucked dry.

      I saw more pompous artists when I used to work for a company in Melbourne that was near the heart of the inner-city gallery scene and it was that experience that the poem above and those in the journal are based on (the one about the guy and the dead bird is based on a true story). Since I’ve started my own business, I’ve mostly dealt with artists who are a little further to the periphery, people whose work sells for three and four figures rather than five or six. They tend to be very nice and very sincere about their work, much like the poets around these parts.

      I felt the Apologia was important to add a bit of balance and to justify the work since it’s not something you see much of in classical/formalist poetry circles these days.

      Reply
  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Shaun, what a delightfully wicked treat these meticulously crafted satirical epigrams are. They intrigue and inspire me … although, I’m not sure I’d be able tackle the meter with success. I am in awe of the way you navigate the sinful, all-too-human psyche in scintillating poetry that sizzles with a searing sarcasm. I will admit to laughing out loud at ‘Complaint to a Complainer’… I will never deprive a complainer of a further complaint again! And what a grand finale ‘Apologia’ is, with its sumptuous imagery and delicious message… ‘origami ego’ is an ambrosial amuse bouche in this juicy feast of linguistic fun. Great stuff!

    Reply
    • Shaun C. Duncan

      Thank you, Susan! The meter is awkward and, as I said to Joshua above, I had to write out the scansion out at the top of each page because I couldn’t hold it in my head easily. It’s fun to work with different meters though.

      I’m glad the humorous side to the works has not been entirely lost. I occasionally wondered if I was focusing too much on the dissention and not enough on trying to make them entertaining. It was also an exercise in working with shorter forms for me. Usually my poems are 40 to 60 lines long, so 8 lines felt quite cramped.

      I’m glad you like the phrase “origami ego.” I’ve been trying to come up with a name for a blog and I think I might just go with that!

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        “Origami Ego” is the perfect name for a blog. It would definitely turn my head… I only wish I’d come up with this superb term myself!

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