Dorothy Parker Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Dorothy Parker’s slight reputation as a poet rests on three slender volumes of verse with funereal titles: Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, and Death and Taxes—collected in 1936 with five additional poems in Not So Deep as a Well. Although her poems on the whole are highly restricted in scope and depth, her poetic techniques became somewhat more sophisticated and more effectively controlled during the decade when these books were published.
The major motifs of Parker’s poems are love, loneliness, and death. Loneliness and death, however, are usually variations on the theme of romantic love—exploited or exploitative, betrayed, feigned, unrequited, abandoned, and lost. Parker finds the relations between men and women disagreeable and duplicitous: “Scratch a lover and find a foe.” In Parker’s limited poetic world, women as epitomized by the narrative persona are doomed to perpetual emotional dependence on men, whose indifference, fickleness, and callousness drives them to the despair implied in the books’ macabre titles. Love relationships, so fleeting and superficial, are based on appearance (“A curly mouth . . . long, tapered limbs”) and “dust-bound trivia” (“The Searched Soul”) that foreordain their failure. Lovers kiss—and invariably tell (“A Certain Lady”). If they swear that their passion is “infinite, undying,” one or both are bound to be lying (“Unfortunate Coincidence”). Dalliance, not marriage, is the aim of the men, and sometimes of the women, for lovers are numerous, faceless, and somewhat interchangeable: “I always get them all mixed up” (“Pictures in the Smoke”).
The roles of the persona
The narrative female persona from whose perspective nearly all the poems are presented plays one of two characteristic roles. In one role, the rejected lover, dominated by her own grief and a sense of unworthiness, tries to cope with her own devastation. This penitent suppliant sometimes seeks a new love, wanting to give away her heart, “the wretched thing,” “now to that lad, now to this.” Otherwise, she dies, literally or figuratively. On occasion she lies “cool and quiet,” finding the grave a tranquil antidote to the fever of unrequited love (“Testament”). At other times, she returns as a ghost to haunt her lover “In April twilight’s unsung melody” (“I Shall Come Back”).
The other role, however, is the image most commonly associated with Parker, the wisecracking wit of the Algonquin Round Table. This narrative persona, worldly-wise and weary, knows that it is always “just my luck to get/ One perfect rose” instead of “one perfect limousine.” She knows, too, as a lover, “my strength and my weakness, gents” is to love only until her passion is reciprocated (“Ballade at Thirty-five”). She realizes that, as a latent romantic, she is bound to be “spectacularly bored” with a constant lover (“On Being a Woman”), and to prefer inappropriately one who is “sudden and swift and strong” to a wealthy wooer—“Somebody ought to examine my head!” To cope, she undermines her sentiment with cynical punch lines, either one-liners or couplets: “I shudder at the thought of men . . . I’m due to fall in love again” (“Symptom Recital”). She relishes the calculated insult (“I turn to little words—so you, my dear/ Can spell them out”) as much as the imagined injury: If she had a “shiny gun” she could have “a world of fun” shooting her antagonists (“Frustration”).
These contrasting personae alternate poems in Parker’s collections and the intermittent presence of the cynic undermines the credibility of the rejected lover. Once conditioned, readers expect a witty riposte or a slangy word (“Here’s my strength and my weakness, gents”) to shift the poem from seriousness to satire, as indeed it often does. Though anticipated, the slang startles, as in “Coda” (“For art is a form of catharsis / And love is a permanent flop”) and...
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