Dorothy Parker: Wit Has Truth in It
In 1944, Viking released an anthology titled The Portable Dorothy Parker. The anthology had been selected by Alexander Woolcott as the fourth of ten volumes created for soldiers fighting in WWII. Of those ten volumes, three have never gone out of print: the Bible, the Shakespeare—and The Portable Dorothy Parker (Silverstein 58). Parker was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, screenplays and criticism, but almost all scholarly research focuses on her short stories, especially "Big Blonde." Her poetry is rarely given the critical attention it deserves.
by Pat Valdata
Like her contemporaries Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie, Parker wrote predominately formal poetry, and like those poets her subject matter was decidedly modern—but with a comic twist that made her work extremely popular. She wrote more than 330 poems between 1915 and 1945. Most of these were published in the 1920s in magazines such as Life, the New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and Vanity Fair, and in a New York Tribune column, "The Conning Tower." Her poems were collected in three books: Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), and Death and Taxes (1931). A fourth volume, Not So Deep as a Well (1936), included poems selected from the previous books and a few new poems.
"A girl's best friend is her mutter"
Dorothy Parker is famous as much for her lifestyle as for her writing. She was born in the summer of 1893 at a New Jersey seaside resort called West End. Her father, Henry Rothschild, was a well-off garment salesman. He and his family lived on the west side of Manhattan until his wife Eliza died, when Parker was five years old. Rothschild remarried in 1900, but his second wife, Eleanor—whom Parker despised—died only three years later.
Parker's father was Jewish, but she was educated in a Catholic school and then in a boarding school that catered to Episcopalians and Presbyterians. She spent less than one year there, ending her formal education when she was 14. She would be conflicted over her Jewish heritage all her life, as evidenced in "The Dark Girl's Rhyme," a poem often regarded as anti-Semitic, but one that is more broadly anti-religious, mocking both the speaker's Judaism: "Up and down a mountain / streeled my silly stock" (21-22) and the Christianity of the man the speaker loves: "Setting hags a-swinging / In a market-place"
(7-8) as the speaker blames religious differences for the failure of the relationship: "Heavy lay between us / All our sires had done" (3-4).
After Henry Rothschild died in 1913, Parker worked as a piano player in a dance school. Her first publication was the poem "Any Porch," which appeared in Vanity Fair in 1915. It launched her career as a writer and led, eventually, to daily lunch at the big round table in the Rose Room of the Algonquin Hotel. Here she dined, drank and exchanged quips with then-famous writers like Alexander Woolcott, Frank P. Adams, and Heywood Broun, and writers whose careers were just taking off: Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, and Harold Ross. Later regulars would include Edna Ferber, Harpo Marx, Charles MacArthur, Ring Lardner, Tallulah Bankhead, and many others.
Parker was married three times, once to Edwin Pond Parker and twice to Alan Campbell, but she fell in and out of love with many other men, both during and between marriages. She wanted to have children but never did. She had one abortion while married to Parker—because the father was not Parker, but Charles MacArthur—and despite later fertility treatments she had two miscarriages while married to Campbell.
Parker's romantic streak was fueled by both neediness and alcohol. She was a nondrinker when she married Eddie Parker, who came home from WWI addicted to both morphine and alcohol. Yet by the 1940s "[s]he began the day with a morning eye-opener and drank steadily until bedtime or a blackout, whichever happened to come first" (Meade 309). The alcohol use and chronic depression led to four suicide attempts and some of her most famous work, including the poem "Résumé." Her poems (and stories) also famously reflect Parker's "unlucky in love" persona, but her early work also includes 19 satirical, free-verse "Hate Songs" and "Hymns of Hate" on topics like men, women, relatives, movies, books, summer resorts, and Bohemians. Interestingly, "Bohemians: A Hate Song," published in Vanity Fair in 1918, skewers "The Table D'Hôte Bolsheviki" (54) whose "one ambition is to get themselves arrested, / So that they can come out and be Heroes" (61-62). However, in 1927 Parker herself was arrested when protesting the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Meade 182-183). In the 1930s she became a supporter—if not a member—of the Communist Party, joining and speaking on behalf of a number of organizations that were Communist fronts. Biographer Marion Meade suggests that Parker took these organizations at face value, without questioning how they were run or where they spent the money she helped them raise (270-271). But in 1938, Parker and her husband Alan Campbell signed a statement in support of the Stalin purges (Meade 270), which suggests a much deeper allegiance to the cause—or maybe just poor judgment clouded by alcohol.
Parker was 73 when she died in 1967, leaving what remained of her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King and, in the event of his death, to the NAACP. Parker and King had never met, but according to Oscar Bernstien, the attorney who drew up her will, "[S]she had no heirs, and racial injustice had always affected her very deeply" (qtd. in Meade 399). Parker was cremated, but no one picked up her remains. In1973 they were delivered to her lawyer's office, where they were filed away—literally—until the NAACP claimed them in 1988, interring them in a memorial garden in Baltimore.
"Wit has truth in it. Wise-cracking is simple calisthenics with words."
Early in her career, Parker wrote poems of a page or more. "Any Porch" is a page and a half of "quotations" by a variety of self-centered speakers. "Invictus" in the same length pokes fun at speakers of slang. "The Passionate Freudian to his Love" consists of three 12-line stanzas of psychobabble ending with "Where a Freud in need is a Freud indeed / We'll always be Jung together" (35-36).
By the time her first collection, Enough Rope, was published, Parker's work included very short poems. One of her shortest, and most famous, "News Item," was quoted in the 1945 Hepburn-Tracy film Without Love and reads, in its entirety: "Men seldom make passes/ At girls who wear glasses." Hepburn quotes T.S. Eliot in the same scene, which says something about Parker's fame in that era. Parker herself regretted becoming famous for what she considered a knock-off. It was "a terrible thing to have made a serious attempt to write verse and then be remembered for two lines like those" (from a 1951 Associated Press article, qtd. in Meade 373).
During Parker's lifetime, and continuing today, these epigrammatic poems have been considered among her best. One of her biographers, Arthur F. Kinney, endorses this opinion when he notes that "Parker starts with the briefest possible situation, catches it at a split moment, and dramatizes it through a voice unaware of the clichés on which it rests" (99). It is, of course, the voice of the poem's speaker to whom he refers as "unaware"; Parker herself was supremely aware of the power of a well-placed cliché. Typical of these short, snappy poems are "Experience" from Enough Rope and "Two-Volume Novel" from Sunset Gun.
By the time of her third collection, Death and Taxes, Parker was a master at compressing language. She had told the complex romances of Penelope and Iseult of Brittany in ten and eight lines, respectively; she can now tell the story of her own sorry love life in six, as she does in "Summary." In this poem Parker uses two sentences to describe her experience, her lessons learned, and her desire in the simplest language, but with a dry and blasé tone that conveys as much feeling as the words themselves. The words are almost all one syllable; the longest word, bitterness, is placed at the end of line 4, at the turn of the poem, after which the speaker pauses to express her world-weary wish for either wisdom or innocence: "Would I knew a little more / Or very much less!" Rhythmically, the poem consists of truncated trochaic tetrameter lines alternated with trimeter lines—the common meter often used by Emily Dickinson. The longer lines are very regular; the poem's final line ends with an emphatic spondee.
In less than thirty words, Parker pinpoints the problem of an aging speaker who has had too many love affairs—each one is just like the one before, but less exciting. This knowledge comes with a price and with no hope of breaking the cycle: if the speaker were wiser, she might stop it; if she were still naïve, she could enjoy the freshness of new love and possibly avoid the making the same mistakes. "Summary" is a sophisticated little poem that perfectly captures the urbane but jaded persona whose boredom is both warning to and commiseration with anyone who has "been there, done that."
Parker was equally able to create a strong poetic voice in longer poems, such as "Lullaby," from Enough Rope. Lullabies are traditionally written from parent to child, but Dorothy Parker was fond of taking tradition and smacking it upside the head. Her "Lullaby" is written from one woman to another, in dactylic tetrameter, with a strong stress at the end of each even-numbered line. The dactyls come regularly (even the title is a dactyl), lulling the reader, like the woman being sung to sleep, with liquid syllables. The 1-2-3 1-2-3 rhythm is at once waltz and nursery rhyme, helping the words to sucker the subject of the poem (and the reader) into thinking the speaker of the poem wishes her nothing but sweet dreams. The last line of each stanza shows, each more clearly than in the preceding stanza, what her real intentions are: "Sleep, pretty lady, as long as you may....Sleep, pretty lady, a couple of years....Sleep, pretty lady, and give me a chance."
Even in the first stanza, imagery offers the reader a hint of the speaker's true feelings. After referring to the night as "crystalline streams," the darkness as "perfumed," and starlight as "bespangled," the speaker lists one final attraction of the night: a chorus of nightingales that are "wistfully amorous," just as Parker's speaker so often is. Then Parker contrasts the quiet of the night with the "blare of the day." The stanza ends with the speaker's wish that the subject sleep "as long as you may," which seems innocent enough—until we read on.
The second stanza continues the mood with more idyllic descriptions of the night. This stanza anthropomorphizes the night, which "watches" the dreamer rest, while breezes sing songs for her. Here again is a contrast between night and day: the happiness of midnight, morning dimmed by tears, presumably because lovers must part. (Knowing Parker, might they also be tears because the speaker wakes depressed?) But just after the speaker wishes "images rapturous" to the subject, comes the real intent of the lullaby: the speaker wishes to the subject to sleep "a couple of years."
Now the reader can see that the poem's rhythm is hypnotic for a reason—this poem is more incantation than lullaby. The speaker is trying to cast a spell, which continues in the third stanza. Here, the speaker compares the subject to the "girlish and golden" moon. She wants the darkness to seduce the subject because morning comes "ever too soon"; in the dreaded morning, flowers will bloom for her and all men will fall in love with her. The speaker's only hope is for the "girlish and golden" Sleeping Beauty to stay asleep, allowing the speaker (older and dark-haired, like Parker?) to have her own shot at the fairy tale ending.
The poem's devices are typical Parker—the repetitions of structure and content, the catalogs, the witty line at the end of each stanza, the final punch line set up almost from the beginning of the poem, the mock-serious use of sentimental diction and imagery. Anyone who reads her poetry will notice these devices, and how much the poem resembles any number of 19th-century Romantic poems. What critics rarely mention is the tension between her formal craftsmanship and her quintessentially Modernist subject matter: all-too-brief love affairs, contemporary society, and suicide attempts, laced with references to cigarettes, hootch, crap games, flappers, the Ritz, and Maxies.
It made perfect sense for Parker to write about these subjects in formal verse. For one thing, she wasn't one to follow a trend just because everyone else did. She was a
trendsetter in her own right, coining the phrases "bobbed hair," "the sky's the limit," "mess around," "bird-brain," and "those were the days" (Silverstein 72). For anyone who loved word play as much as Parker (when challenged to use the word 'horticulture' in a sentence, she famously said, "You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think"), following a strict scheme of meter and rhyme would make the writing of a poem that much more satisfying. Her free verse poems, which she tried early in her career, are competent, but form helps showcase her satiric wit.
She was, in fact, very accomplished at writing formal poetry. Her verses scan, and the substitutions come in logical places. In "Lullaby," there is one substitution in each of the first and second stanzas. The phrase "sweet hours" in line 7 sounds like a spondee, and the line-ending "you" in line 11 can easily be stressed to emphasize the unique "blessing" the speaker wishes for subject. In the third stanza, when the speaker's ill- wishes are more transparent, comes another spondee ("too soon," in line 20) and another stress on "you" (line 21). Finally, it is easy and sensible to put a strong stress on any or all of the words in "give me a chance" in the last line of the poem.
Although astute readers of her work see the dark side to her humor—how many poets have successfully written funny poems about suicide?—she was also good at writing serious poems. Her sonnet, "Transition," for example, acknowledges that sorrow will heal with time, noting that "June shall surely bring / New promise" (11-12) although "it is Winter now" (8), and closes with the lines "My heart is water, that I first must breast / The terrible, slow loveliness of Spring" (13-14). In "Garden-Spot," the speaker sees a woman in a cemetery, weeping, not because she mourns a loved one, but because she knows "She shall not lie in consecrated ground" (12)—in other words, because she is going to commit suicide.
All of these poems are good examples of Parker's expert prosody, yet very little of her poetry is included in anthologies of American literature The current edition of the Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry includes only "Resume," "One Perfect Rose," the eight-line "Observation," and two witty, four-line portraits, one of Oscar Wilde, one of George Sand.
Why is her poetry so little known today? For one thing, literary critics often belittle popular poetry as "lowbrow" and "too accessible." Yet Parker's poems, even the comic ones, often include classical allusions and references to literature. It is also
possible that Parker's snappy one-liners at the Round Table made critics think that her poems were simply written off the top of her head. In fact, Parker struggled with writing and was a champion procrastinator. She could not produce a complete draft and then revise the whole—she agonized over every word, typing her poems over and over in multiple drafts. She once told an interviewer, "I can't write five words but that I change seven" (qtd. in Capron, 1956).
"The toast of two continents—Greenland and Australia"
When Enough Rope was published in December 1926, it was a popular success but received mixed critical reviews. The Nation, the New York Herald Tribune and Poetry praised the book with phrases like "salty humor...tarred with a bright black authenticity" and " 'smart' in the fashion designer's sense of the word" (Nation and Poetry, qtd. in Meade 177). The New Republic called her "a distinguished and interesting poet" and one reviewer gushed that she was "a giantess of American letters" (Meade 178). The New York Times called her poetry "flapper verse," adding that "it is wholesome, engaging, uncorseted and not devoid of grace" (qtd in Silverstein 40). Although the New York World called her "one of the most sparkling wits who express themselves through light verse," they added that she could reach "the higher plane of authentic poetry" (qtd. in Silverstein 40). It is unclear why humorous poetry should be characterized as lacking authenticity, especially since so much of Parker's poetry was autobiographical. As biographer Marion Meade points out in the introduction to the Complete Poems, "[Light verse] has found an appreciative audience since the days of Greek and Latin poets" (xix).
Sunset Gun and Death and Taxes both received good reviews. In Parker's third collection, Meade sees:
...a distinct shift in mood, a maturity and reflection, less mockery, fewer knee-jerk responses to people who got under her skin. There is still a goodly amount of laughter, but it is subdued—and sometimes nonexistent. ...Instead of Parkerlite, audiences were given sad, solemn lyrics that seemed ripped from the dark reaches of her unconscious. To critics this volume suggested she was a better poet than she had been given credit for. (Complete Poems xxiv-xxv)
Other critics give her poetry mixed reviews. John Hollander praises her "best verse" as "sassy, tough, sentimental about its own mild ironies and vice versa...most successful in its brevity" (reprinted online from Yale Review). Joan Acocella, in a retrospective of Parker's work on the 100th anniversary of her birth, writes "even her best pieces showed a certain lack of ambition" (78). The most she has to say about "One Perfect Rose" is to characterize it as "witty, and so are some of the other poems, but in all of them the message is the same: hope will always be disappointed. And the technique is the same: she inflates the balloon, then pops it" (79). But if Parker comes across as a one- trick pony, it's because she knew that was the kind of poetry her audience demanded, and more importantly, the kind that magazines would pay for. The poems with the snappy closing lines are the ones that built her reputation, enabling her later to make a living writing screenplays, reviews, and stories.
Parker herself was extremely critical of her own work. In her 1955 interview for the Paris Review, she said, "My verses are no damn good. Let's face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now." Yet three years later, when she was given the Marjorie Peabody Waite Award by the National Institute of Arts and Letters, she received a standing ovation (Meade 362).
In the April 2011 issue of Poetry, Jason Guriel, reviewing Parker's Complete Poems, objects to her "firmly end-stopped metrical patterns, which is what formal poems do when we have no great reason to concentrate on their words," a position that shows how little he knows about writing formal poetry. He also asserts that "Parker came up with no surprising images, similes, or metaphors of her own" (63). In this case, Guriel misses Parker's talent for using clichéd images to twist them to her own ends. Later in the review, however, he acknowledges that her poems let in "oxygen, helium, limousines" (64) and that they "have a comedian's sense of structure and timing; the punch-lines, when they come, are as crisp as tapped cymbals (even if the downbeat of the drummer strikes us as a potential suicide)" (65).
Guriel's sense of Parker as stand-up comic is valid; she is not only the foremother of light-verse poets like Phyllis McGinley, but also of television personalities Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers and Kathy Gifford. Like Parker, they are women who make us laugh as they criticize contemporary society and personal relationships. From her first publication, Parker used her equally sharp wit and powers of observation to tell "a story
of American preoccupation with fashion, gossip, and other trivial pursuits against a backdrop of weightier issues—philosophy, morality, sexuality, feminist politics, and war in Europe" (Pettit 25). Parker was an adept critic of 20th century American society, and a talented poet who deserves recognition for the full body of her work, not just a single couplet.
Acocella, Joan. "After the Laughs." New Yorker (16 Aug 1993): 76-81.
Capron, Marion. "Dorothy Parker, The Art of Fiction No. 13." Paris Review (1955). Online. 6 Jan 2011.
Guriel, Jason. "Dorothy Parker's Perfect Contempt." Poetry (April 2011): 61-68.
"Dorothy Parker and the Art of Light Verse." Yale Review 85:1 (1997). Online. 8 Mar 2005.
Kinney, Arthur F. Dorothy Parker, Revised. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Meade, Marion. Introduction. Complete Poems. By Dorothy Parker. New York: Penguin.
Rev. ed. 2010.
---. What Fresh Hell Is This? A Biography of Dorothy Parker. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
Parker, Dorothy. "Bohemians: A Hate Song." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 224-226.
---. "Experience." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 90.
---. "Lullaby." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 73.
---. "Garden-Spot." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 166.
---. "News Item." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 71.
---. "Summary." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 188.
---. "Transition." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 174.
---. "The Dark Girl's Rhyme." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 12- 13.
---. "The Passionate Freudian to His Love." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 246-247.
---. "Two-Volume Novel." Complete Poems. New York: Penguin. Rev. ed. 2010. 145.
Pettit, Rhonda. A Gradual Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker's
Poetry and Fiction. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2000.
Silverstein, Stuart Y. Introduction. Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker. New York: Simon & Schuster. Rev. ed. 2009.
Books by Dorothy Parker:
Enough Rope. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1926.
Sunset Gun. New York: Boni & Liveright, 1928.
Death and Taxes. New York: Viking, 1931.
Not As Deep as a Well. New York: Viking, 1936.
The Portable Dorothy Parker. New York: Viking, 1944 (includes short stories) .
Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker. Edited with introduction by Stuart Y. Silverstein. New York: Scribner. 1996. Rev. ed. 2009.
Complete Poems. Ed. Colleen Breese. New York: Penguin, 1999. Rev. ed. Edited with introduction by Marion Meade, 2010.
From 1915-1944, her individual poems were published in the following magazines and newspapers:
New York Herald Tribune
New York World
Saturday Evening Post