Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1007
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 provokes laughter in hitherto serious contexts. Even if the author meant some of her poems to be taken seriously, as individually they might be (see “Transition”), the cynical persona and her attendant language establish the prevailing comic tone for Parker’s collected verse. Thus Parker’s poetic techniques reinforce the impression that her verse is primarily an exercise in verbal ingenuity rather than a presentation of authentic emotion or experience.
Composed mostly of simple iambic quatrains or couplets, Parker’s lyric poetry lacks the formal complexity, structural finesse and variations, and metaphorical ingenuity that add interest to much other poetry on the same themes, such as the love poetry of John Donne, William Shakespeare, John Keats, or Emily Dickinson. Kinney has favorably compared Parker’s techniques and control of meter and line to Horace, Martial, Catullus,Heinrich Heine, and her contemporaries Wylie and Millay. Although Parker may have read the classical authors, it seems likely that she learned their techniques from the verse of her companion of the Algonquin Round Table, Adams, whose “Conning Tower” column in the New York World sported such whimsies as “Give me the balmy breezes! . . ./ Wind on my cheek and hair!/ And, while we’re on the topic,/ Give me the air.” Adams and Parker share control, compression, precise diction, and a fondness for puns—perhaps all that one can or should ask of light verse.
The difficulty is that the techniques and diction which make Parker’s light verse comical and airy simply seem banal when applied to poetry that purports to be of greater seriousness. The imagery is predictable—stormy seas, softly dropping rain, withering flowers to denote an absent or lost lover; the rejected maiden “a-crying,” or sleeping chastely, or mourning “whenever one drifted petal leaves the tree” for the dream that “lies dead here.” Moreover, the language in some of the more serious poetry is too often self-consciously anachronistic: “what shallow boons suffice my heart” or uncomfortably poetic—“e’re,” “lay a-drying,” “Little will I think. . . .”
One could apply to Parker’s poetry the judgment that she herself applied to the performance of a famous actress, who ran “the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Within that restricted compass, her comic verse succeeds where her more serious poetry fails.