Parker, Dorothy (Poetry Criticism)
Dorothy Parker 1893–-1967
American poet, essayist, and short story writer.
As a poet, Parker is best known for three slender volumes of verse, Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), and Death and Taxes (1931). She also achieved widespread acclaim for her short stories and frequently quoted witticisms. Though she penned prose and poetry throughout her life, Parker's literary reputation rests mostly on poetry and short stories she authored prior to 1938. Mostly traditional in form, Parker's verse packs caustic sarcasm into sonnets, lyrics, ballads, Horatian odes, epigrams, and epitaphs. In her poetry, Parker most often addresses women's issues, soured love relationships, and vacuous, superficial lives of upper-crust society women who lived during the 1920s. In her characteristic burlesque style, Parker lampoons cloying women who depend too much on men for emotional and economic well-being, as well as the types of men who twist these female traits to their advantage. Following its publication in 1926, Parker's first collection of poetry, Enough Rope, rose to best-seller status. Nevertheless, Parker was self-deprecating when assessing her own poetry, once referring to it in an interview with the Paris Review as light verse that was “no damn good.” In recent years, contemporary themes throughout Parker's poetry have received renewed critical acclaim. Today's readers continue to find deeper meanings in Parker's work than many of her contemporaries were able to appreciate—particularly in the poems and short stories that center on women's issues.
Parker was born in West End, New Jersey, in 1893 to Jewish clothier J. Henry Rothschild and Eliza Marston Rothschild. Her mother died shortly after her daughter's premature birth. Following her mother's death, Parker was raised by her father and stepmother, who Parker described as a “religious fanatic.” Parker grew up ashamed of her mixed ethnic and religious background, aspiring to write an autobiographical tale entitled “Mongrel,” which she never penned. Parker detested her stepmother for sending her to a convent school in New York City, an action taken to save Parker's soul from her “Jewish upbringing.” While at the convent, Parker began writing poetry, but her education among the nuns was short-lived. Already showing signs of a rebellious streak, Parker described the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion” and was expelled. Parker's father and stepmother sent the young writer to an exclusive finishing school in Morristown, New Jersey, where she graduated following a year of study in 1911. During her time at the finishing school Parker began developing as a writer. Parker's persistence paid off in 1915 when one of her poems captured the attention of a Vogue editor, who hired her to write captions for the magazine's fashion illustrations. Two years later, an editor hired her onto Vanity Fair as a drama critic. Parker's acerbic wit again invoked trouble, and she was fired from this post after writing a blistering review of a play starring the wife of one of the magazine's financial backers. Parker continued writing as a literary critic for the New Yorker's book review column under the pseudonym, “Constant Reader.” During the 1920s, Parker became well-known in New York literary and theatrical circles as a member of the Algonquin Round Table. The round table, which included other prominent writers such as Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, and Franklin Pierce Adams, became famous when newspaper columnists reported the activities and discussions at the famed Algonquin Hotel debates. Many of Parker's derisive Round Table remarks, such as “Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses” were often quoted and achieved catchphrase status. In 1917, Parker married Wall Street broker Edwin Pond Parker II. While her husband was away for two years' military service, Parker's whirlwind social life led her to speakeasies and parties in uptown apartments where she became well-acquainted with Ernest Hemingway, Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, and other literary figures. By the time her husband returned from the war, Parker's life seemed punctuated by unhappiness, which was mirrored in her poetry. By the end of the 1920s, Parker was drinking heavily, had a string of affairs, an abortion, and attempted suicide three times. After the dissolution of their marriage, Parker eventually married Alan Campbell, an actor eleven years her junior, and half-Jewish like herself. That relationship was also far from happy, and was marked by bickering, divorce, and eventual remarriage. In her later years, Parker became involved in a variety of social causes, including the Screen Writers Guild and the Anti-Nazi League. Parker's later years were marked by increasing financial instability. She died alone at the Hotel Volney in New York, where she was found dead June 7, 1967. As a final social statement, Parker willed her estate, consisting of about $20,000, to Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Parker's first poetry collection, Enough Rope, achieved widespread acclaim—particularly for a book of poems—shortly after its publication in 1926. Throughout the slim volume of poetry, Parker explores the threat of losing love and unveils the hypocrisy and mawkishness of romantic jargon. In “One Perfect Rose,” Parker mimics the frilly language of romantic greeting card verse, rambling about a rose from a suitor. But Parker adds an unexpected twist in the last stanza: “Why is it no one ever sent me yet / One perfect limousine, do you suppose / Ah no, it's always just my luck to get / One perfect rose.” In “Unfortunate Coincidence,” vows exchanged between two lovers are cynically dismissed: “By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing, / And he vows his passion is / Infinite, undying— / Lady, make a note of this: / One of you is lying.” Parker's second volume of poetry, Sunset Gun, which was published in 1928, also garnered widespread appeal. In Sunset Gun, Parker continued to expand on the themes of lost love and hollow promises that appeared in her first book of poetry. Also in Sunset Gun, Parker experimented with traditional literary forms, including a cycle of epigrams titled: “A Pig's Eye View of Literature.” Parker's third book of verse, Death and Taxes (1931), is more morose in tone than her first two publications. Critic Franklin P. Adams called Death and Taxes “her saddest and her best book.” In the poem, “The Flaw in Paganism,” Parker encourages readers to practice hedonistic behavior. “Drink and dance and laugh and lie, / Love, the reeling midnight through, / For tomorrow we shall die!” Parker then adds dryly: “(But, alas, we never do.)”—a sardonic remark perhaps referring to her own suicide attempts. By the time Parker's collected poetry was published under the title, Not So Deep as a Well (1936), Parker was writing more prose than poetry. Some of Parker's poems also were published in Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Everybody's, and the Ladies' Home Journal. In a telling article written in 1937, Parker disagreed that “ridicule is the most effective weapon,” saying that there are “things that never have been funny, and never will be … And I know that ridicule may be a shield, but it is not a weapon.” Ridicule, however, punctuates most of Parker's poetry, allowing her to lance through the hypocrisy of social customs, vows, and the inconstancy of love (“Scratch a lover and find a foe”). Parker's poetry is mostly an attempt to use her wit as a defense—first against pain, then despair. Parker's sharp humor and skill in translating classical forms into modern idiom prompted critic Arthur Kinney to call Parker “the best epigrammatic poet in our country, in this century.”
Dismissive about the quality of her poetic output, Parker described her efforts as light verse that was “terribly dated,” and was herself one of her worst and most constant critics. However, Parker's skill in packaging modern issues into classical poetic forms won the praise of many critics, noting that her lilting verse is often deceivingly airy which allows her to explore the contradictory nature of human behavior. Ogden Nash once wrote: “To say that Mrs. Parker writes well is as fatuous, I'm afraid, as proclaiming that Cellini was clever with his hands. … The trick about her writing is the trick about Ring Lardner's writing or Ernest Hemingway's work. It isn't a trick.” In 1931, Henry Seidel Canby wrote: “… this belle dame sans merci has the ruthlessness of the great tragic lyricist whose work was allegorized in the fable of the nightingale singing with her breast against a thorn.” Other critics have described her work as melodramatic, sentimental, and trivial because of the witticisms that thread throughout her poetry. Nevertheless, Parker's work has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, due in part to Marion Meade's Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, published in 1988. Writer W. Somerset Maugham once said Parker had a gift “ … for seeing something to laugh at in the bitterest tragedies of the human animal.”
Enough Rope 1926
Sunset Gun 1928
Death and Taxes 1931
Not So Deep as a Well [also published as The Collected Poetry of Dorothy Parker, 1944] 1936
Not Much Fun: Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker 1996
Laments for the Living (collected short stories) 1930
After Such Pleasures (collected short stories) 1933
Here Lies (stories) 1939, reprinted as The Collected Stories of Dorothy Parker
A Star is Born (screenplay) 1937
Poems and a Story (recording) 1962
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SOURCE: “Dorothy Parker's Poems,” in The New Republic, Vol. XLIX, No. 633, January 19, 1927, p. 256.
[Wilson compares and contrasts Parker's poetry to that of her contemporaries, noting in particular those elements which make her work distinctive.]
Mrs. Dorothy Parker began her poetic career as a writer of humorous verse of the school of Franklin P. Adams. There are specimens of her early vein in [Enough Rope]: a comic roundel, a rondeau redoublé “(and scarcely worth the trouble, at that)” and a parody of some verses of Gilbert. Mrs. Parker's special invention (aside from her vers libre “hymns of hate,” unrepresented here), was a kind of burlesque sentimental lyric which gave the effect, till you came to the end, of a typical magazine filler, perhaps a little more authentically felt and a little better written than the average: the last line, however, punctured the rest with incredible ferocity. Thus, to quote only a comparatively mild example included in this book, the old, old gate wreathed with lilacs where the lady waits with yearning in the gloaming turns out, at the end of the poem, to be “the gate her true love gave her.”
Mrs. Parker has had scarcely a rival in the contrivance of these loaded cigars, these squirting boutonnières and these pigs-in-clover puzzles of literature; and she could have put together a most amusing book of them. Her present book...
(The entire section is 1089 words.)
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The New York Times Book Review (review date 1927)
SOURCE: A review of Enough Rope in The New York Times Book Review, March 27, 1927, p. 6.
[The critic appraises Parker's poetry, especially her timely treatments of established forms.]
In an earlier age Dorothy Parker's lyric effusions would have been classified as society verse. But, alas! “society” vanished long ago or has become merged with the proletariat—or so runs the complaint. In any case, it has in the male portion gone in so heavily for golf and lounge suits as to have lost all distinguishing characteristics. And the females don sport clothes instead of frocks. Miss Parker's is not society verse in the old sense; it is flapper verse. And as such it is wholesome, engaging, uncorseted and not devoid of grace.
It is at once difficult and not difficult to choose an example from Enough Rope. The verses are so uniformly excellent (in their way) that to exhibit one rather than another appears invidious; on the other hand, since the degree of excellence is so uniformly high, what shall determine selection? Making a random opening of the pages, this really delicate lyric comes to light. It is called “A Very Short Song.”
Once, when I was young and true, Some one left me sad— Broke my brittle heart in two; And that was very bad. Love is for unlucky folk, Love is but a...
(The entire section is 396 words.)
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SOURCE: “Fashionable Poetry,” in Poetry, Vol. XXX, No. 1, April, 1927, pp. 52-4.
[Luhrs appreciates Parker's honest look at society and her ability to craft poetry that appeals to the general reader.]
Enough Rope is what the well-dressed man or woman will wear inside their heads instead of brains. Here is poetry that is “smart” in the fashion designer's sense of the word. Mrs. Parker need not hide her head in shame, as the average poet must, when she admits the authorship of this book. For in its lightness, its cynicism, its pose, she has done the correct thing; she is in a class with the Prince of Wales, the Theatre Guild, Gramercy Park, and H. L. Mencken. And these somewhat facetious remarks are not intended as disparagement. It is high time that a poet with a monocle looked at the populace, instead of the populace looking at the poet through a lorgnette. It is high time that the shy, dreamy-eyed, despised creatures known as poets should received as much respect as plumbers. Edison and Ford have genius of a sort, but could either of them write a superb and piercing sonnet? As for the argument that their creations, being useful and commercial, are entitled to more prosperity than the intangible luxury of verse, what about the luxurious and useless movies? Anyone who composes a good movie is assured of a fortune; so why not anyone who composes a good narrative poem? Poetry is no more...
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SOURCE: “New Moon Madness,” in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. IV, No. 46, June 9, 1928, p. 943.
[Benét reviews Sunset Gun, pointing out that Parker's writing, like her personality, is difficult to categorize.]
Is [Sunset Gun] as good as Enough Rope? Yes. And that might constitute a review, mightn't it. A eulogium, at least. Well, there were, perhaps, one or two gems of purest ray unserene in the former book that surpass anything in this; but there were also one or two sets of verses not up to the general high level. Your microscope may be better than ours when you come to examine Sunset Gun, but you will have to peer pretty intently to detect flaws.
There is a hackneyed remark made about conversationally clever people (and we are always left at the post, pawing for a rejoinder, when Mrs. Parker chooses to declare herself in a word or two,—or in danger of that old apoplexy of ours),—but they say, you know, about such people, “Oh, if she only wrote as she talks!” The most amazing thing about Dorothy Parker is that she writes precisely as she talks. Well, no, we have never heard her talk in rhyme, exactly. But, leaving that aside—.
This is a book, like the other, that you cannot put into a particular pigeonhole. It is a perfect representation of the author, who is a paradox. A moth-gray cloak of demureness hiding...
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SOURCE: “A Porcupine's View,” in The New York Herald Tribune, Vol. 4, No. 43, July 15, 1928, p. 7.
[Busey reviews Sunset Gun, discussing what she believes is Parker's appeal for readers.]
Although Miss Parker gives us in these pages, among other charming fantasies, what she calls a “Pig's-Eye View of Literature,” [Sunset Gun] itself could never be described as a pig's-eye view of life. There is no luxurious wallowing here (except, perhaps, in misery), no sloppiness, no slothful obesity. The poems are lean and quick as a snake. One might say they represented a porcupine's-eye view of life if Miss Parker had not written that “Parable of a Certain Virgin,” beginning:
Oh, ponder, friend, the porcupine; Refresh your recollection, And sit a moment, to define His means of self-protection.
She goes on to describe those means in swift rhythm and comic rhyme until:
Or should pursuers press him hot, One scarcely needs to mention His quick and cruel barbs that got Shakespearean attention; Or driven to his final ditch. To his extremest thicket, He'll fight with claws and molars which Is not considered cricket). How amply armored, he, to fend The fear of chase that haunts him! How well prepared our little friend!— And who the devil wants him?
Well, we want Miss Parker and are willing to pursue her. As a matter of fact, I...
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SOURCE: “Belle Dame sans Merci,” in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. VII, No. 47, June 13, 1931, p. 891.
[Canby believes that the techniques Parker uses in Death and Taxes produce “poetry deserving high praise.”]
The times are choked and cluttered with disillusion—a sticky disillusion, an adolescent petulance, solemn and unreasonable, that pours itself out in dull, formless novels dealing with ugly people who should have been stepped upon at birth, if indeed they were really as mudgy and disagreeable as the writers make them out—which is most improbable. We are blared at and saxophoned by a tinny sophistication that means nothing, and is nothing but the restlessness of smart people who think they are not appreciated, or the shallow bawdry of children educated beyond their characters. Cynicism leaves the sincerity of a tub for the suspicious publicity of a night club, and a “hard” generation patronizes in the comic strips cruel jokes and a sentimental Tarzan using bad medieval English, without a breath's pause between.
We look for a bitterness that can still be gay, and a witty sorrow, and a disillusion that can thumb its nose at the old one who makes lives “gang agley,” and find little salt of that savor in contemporary prose, but some, thank heaven! still in poetry. In verse of a Horatian lightness, with an exquisite certainty of technique, which, like...
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SOURCE: “Satire and Epigram in Dorothy Parker's Versicles,” in The New York Times Book Review, June 14, 1931, p. 4.
[Hutchison reads Death and Taxesas a “small package of literary delights,” that reveals truth amid a mixture of the serious and lighthearted.]
Since, according to the old proverb, death and taxes are the only certainties in life, we assume that Dorothy Parker means by her title that the poems of the collection were equally inevitable. But since all assumptions are likely to be fallible when dealing with the literary output of this pleasing and disconcerting lady, we discreetly withdraw from further pursuit of the subject. Death and Taxes is a thin book, housing something like half a hundred short poems—several are very short indeed. But invariably the quality is in inverse ratio to the quantity.
Dorothy Parker's function in the body literary and the body social is too well known to require more than a word. It consists for the most part in jabbing with pins, but she jabs with such contagiously impish pleasure that it is not polite to be other than pleased to be a victim. And why should one not be pleased? This spritely poet is not malicious, although she is generally satirical. Refusing to be malicious, a satirical poet perhaps sacrifices something of cutting strength. Pope, the Earl of Rochester (with his memorable quatrain on Charles II), Jonathan...
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SOURCE: “Nor Rosemary, Nor Rue,” in Poetry, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3, December 1931, pp. 159-61.
[Rosenberg focuses on Death and Taxes with respect to sentiment, wit, and poetic quality.]
Since Mrs. Parker is too often satisfied with such readymade images as “my narrow bed” for a grave, and
The weary pen that sets my sorrow down Feeds at my heart,
it is obvious that her small lyrics can hardly be considered seriously as poetry written today. Criticism of her work, therefore, since space does not permit the more general and more interesting inquiry into the socio-psychological reasons for her popularity, must consist of an examination of those characteristics which give to it the appearance of poetry. I shall comment on three of these: its sentiment, its wit, and its trace of poetic quality.
I. The sentiment, as suggested by the title [Death and Taxes], varies for the most part between the death-love theme, in the “faded roses” sense, and the semi-naive smartness of the experienced female. Also, like many Broadway characters, she sometimes talks of God.
II. The wit is negligible. It operates, as in a quatrain on “Sweet Violets,” on the obvious mechanics of a bathetic “surprise,” which occurs when the last line hangs a sophisticated conclusion on the hackneyed sentiment:
You are brief and frail...
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SOURCE: “Deep, At That,” The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XV, No. 7, December 12,1936, p. 5.
[In the following review, Benét studies Parker's stature as a poet dealing with the experiences of living as depicted in the poems included in her recent collection, Not So Deep As A Well.]
Here are the collected poems of Dorothy Parker, several being stricken from the roll of those she wished to keep and several being added. In the main here are merely Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, and Death and Taxes all in one volume. And I should be shot for using the word “merely.” Here is a lively plenty. And I am wrong too, for using the world “lively.” Here is also an exquisitely distilled bitterness that improves with age. Tenderness, bravado, the arrantly colloquial inimitably made use of, and Dorothy Parker's own version of the Voice of Experience.
As I re-read poems I have already re-read a great many times, it seems to me that this notable talent has become clearer and finer through the progress of the three books. In the beginning there was more softness and affection for the word “little,” and rather a clinging to stereotype, till suddenly the characteristic epigrammatic colloquialism, witty summary, or vehemently brilliant ending asserted themselves. Yet there is a quiet poem in those first pages, “Somebody's Song,” which has always greatly...
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SOURCE: “The Rueful, Frostbitten Laughter of Dorothy Parker,” The New York Times Book Review, December 13, 1936, pp. 2, 28.
[In this review, Kronenberger discussed Parker's exploration of emotion and sentimentality through her use of wit and cynicism.]
It is just ten years since Mrs. Parker first made plain that the world is safe enough for girls who wear glasses, but reasonably precarious for most others. It is ten years or thereabouts since people began to repeat at dinner tables those bright sayings of hers which could not always have been repeated in print. She achieved, as she deserved, the title of wit; and here are her three volumes of poetry, now collected into one, to reassert her claim. Here is, I think, much the best light verse of our day which is highly personal in tone, which gains its effects through describing some one in a situation; and over and over again it is the same effect, one that can be vulgarly described as “The joke's on me.”
If that is the formula for so much of this verse, it must yet not be dismissed as simply a device, for behind it lies a settled point of view—the immemorial, rueful, frostbitten laughter of women who, yearning for love, cry out not only because they are frustrated of the lovers they want, but also because they are bored with the lovers they have. For every door that will not open to Mrs. Parker's fluttering knock, there...
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SOURCE: A review of Not So Deep as a Well, in The Spectator, Vol. 5677, April 16, 1937, p. 726.
[In this review, Redlich supports Parker's poetry for its unembellished deceptions of “the vanity of human wishes.”]
Miss Parker's short stories are a perennial delight, and her verse is of the same calibre. No other writer can so perfectly portray not only sophistication but the obverse of sophistication—the knotted back of the canvas, the tangle of emotion and passion and fear that shall never be seen in public. “Chant for Dark Hours” is the title of one of her poems. It would stand as the title for three-quarters of her book—and it is a dialogue between a woman who waits for a dilatory lover and that part of her mind which utterly despises herself for doing so. Conflict, self-mockery, disillusion, regret—anything but happiness is the subject of her poems, and if by any chance she catches contentment breaking in she gives the last line a good firm twist to remind herself of the vanity of human wishes:
Oh, gallant was the first love, and glittering and fine; The second love was water, in a clear white cup; The third love was his, and the fourth was mine; And after that, I always get them all mixed up.
She can get almost any story into four lines. Her “Two-Volume Novel,” for instance, is a model of brevity:
The sun's gone dim, and The...
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SOURCE: “New York Wits,” in The New Republic, Vol. LV, No. 708, June 27, 1928, p. 155.
[Walton examines Sunset Gun, noting the devices Parker uses to “puncture old illusions and then caper wickedly among the ruins.”]
A sophisticated palate, it is said, requires pungent fare. For the delight of epicures, New York has produced recently two disillusioned wits whose verse has an acrid and heady tang. Scoffers by profession, typically urban, Dorothy Parker and Samuel Hoffenstein share in common a gift of mockery which is as deadly as it is diverting. No major emotion is sacred to their venomous pens, and love, in particular, they view with a jaundiced eye. With neat, effective strokes they puncture the old illusions and then caper wickedly among the ruins. True, there are differences that separate them. Mr. Hoffenstein's gesture is a comic shrug of “fairly utter despair,” while Dorothy Parker is inclined toward a gallant bravado. Both, however, appear to have taken for their motto the following lines from “Sunset Gun”:
Show your quick, alarming skill in Tidy mockeries of art; Never, never dip your quill in Ink that rushes from your heart.
Samuel Hoffenstein is especially indisposed to allow the sentimentalists any quarter. “Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing” crackle with hard-boiled humor and with deft, tricky rhymes. They are sour and...
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SOURCE: “Her Apprenticeship: Essays, Light Verse, Drama,” in Dorothy Parker, Revised, Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1998, pp. 66-72.
[Here, Kinney provides a discussion concerning Parker's use of meter and verbal simplicity to better satirize her view of society.]
LIGHT VERSE: “COUNTING UP, EXULTINGLY”
When the wry, regular, and apparently easy poems of Parker were selected for her first book in 1926, she had been writing and publishing short verses for more than 11 years. Parker was determined from the start to write satire from her woman's point of view—to exaggerate reality through stereotype, repetition, cataloguing, or hyperbole—rather than to write nonsense verse. She also wanted her verse to be simple, as colloquial as possible, for that way she could extend her satire to those who spoke as her lines speak—but she found, even composing longhand (later, with criticism, she would compose on the typewriter), that she continually crossed out words that were not simple enough. She was encouraged in her search for substance coupled with a simple style by F. P. A., when he was on The Mail and she was still at Vogue. Her first published poem, “Any Porch,” is revealing.
“I'm reading that new thing of Locke's— So whimsical, isn't he? Yes—” “My dear, have you seen those new smocks? They're nightgowns—no more, and no...
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SOURCE: “Her Accomplishment: Poetry, Fiction, Criticism,” in Dorothy Parker, Revised, Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1998, pp. 86-112.
[The following is Kinney's study of Parker's maturation as a poet, offering a comparison of her with other poets of her generation and persuasion.]
PREMISES: “CALL HER BY MY NAME” …
[Parker] learned in writing her plays, as she did in the evolution of her essays and light verse, the inherent value in imaginative application of experience, starting with a personal perspective as a handy persona and moving, more and more, toward a personal aesthetic. Voicings multiply, contradict, appear and recede, denote and imply. “The content of her verse began to change drastically, too,” Meade writes, as she began to expose and analyze her own experiences, her own hopes, fears, and betrayals.
Satin gowns turn into shrouds, decomposing corpses clinically observe the activity of worms, the living dead ghoulishly deck themselves with graveyard flowers. There were alarming glimpses, no more than a series of snapshots, of the tragedies that would be recognized by twentieth century women as peculiarly their own: the gut-searing loneliness of the women who have “careers,” the women who don't marry, the women who do but divorce; the women deprived of maternal warmth and comfort who are condemned to seek...
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