Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1438
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...
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- Critical Essays
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.”
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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 is, however, quite different. During the last two or three years, Dorothy Parker—though still in the pages of Life and the New Yorker—has emerged as a distinguished and interesting poet. It is true that, in America just now, we do not lack distinguished woman poets: there are so many women who write creditable lyrics that we have come to take them more or less for granted and are no longer very much excited over the appearance of another promising apprentice of the school of Elinor Wylie or Edna Millay. But Mrs. Parker seems somehow to stand a little apart from this group. It is true that she sometimes echoes Mrs. Wylie and, more frequently, Miss Millay; yet, on the whole, her poems give the impression of differing from those of many of her sisters in being a good deal less “literary”—that is, they have the appearance of proceeding, not merely from the competent exercise of an attractive literary gift, but from a genuine necessity to write. We may be conscious that there are at least thirty women in the country who would have been incapable of spoiling an excellent epigram with such a final couplet as this,
Inertia rides and riddles me; The which is called Philosophy
or who would never have commenced another as follows,
Oh, both my shoes are shiny new And pristine is my hat
—we may be conscious, I say, that there are perhaps thirty expert poets who would have known why “pristine” and “the which” were impossible. But we feel, also, that a sound instinct for style has here merely been betrayed by the bad habits of humorous versifying. And, in a similar way; we are convinced that her addiction to the idiom of Miss Millay is less an evidence of imitative weakness than an accidental and probably passing phase, due to the fact that Mrs. Parker has only just begun to attempt serious poetry and that, of all the poets who are read just now, Miss Millay's temperament, in certain of its aspects, has most affinity with her own. It is on the side of bareness and sharpness that Mrs. Parker most resembles Miss Millay; but the edged and acrid style which emerges in her book is unmistakably individual.
And the personality which reveals itself in Mrs. Parker's poems is quite different from that of Miss Millay: Mrs. Parker has her own complex of emotions, her own philosophy of love. Take the sonnet of which the octet begins as follows,
If you should sail for Trebizond, or die, Or cry another name in your first sleep, Or see me board a train, and fail to sigh, Appropriately, I'd clutch my breast and weep.
Here she has caught precisely the idiom of Edna Millay; yet Miss Millay would never have drawn the same moral:
Therefore the mooning world is gratified, Quoting how prettily we sigh and swear; And you and I, correctly side by side, Shall live as lovers when our bones are bare; And though we lie forever enemies, Shall rank with Abélard and Héloïse.
This is not one of Mrs. Parker's most satisfactory poems; it is, on the contrary, one of her most derivative; yet at the same time, it is interesting precisely because of a certain originality of accent and of point of view. Perhaps few poems in this book are completely successful: they tend, on the one hand, as I have already suggested, to become a little cheapened in the direction of ordinary humorous verse and, on the other, to become too deeply saturated with the jargon of ordinary feminine poetry, to go in too much for plaintive Aprils, for red stains on velvet gowns and for “pretty maids” and “likely lads.” But her best work is extraordinarily vivid: it has a peculiar intensity and frankness which, when they appear in poetry, seem to justify any style or method, no matter how strange to literary convention. Dorothy Parker's unprecedented feat has been to raise to the dignity of poetry to the “wise-cracking” humor of New York: She has thus almost invented a new kind of epigram: she has made the comic anti-climax tragic. With the publication of this volume, her figure becomes distinct and her voice unmistakable: in her satires, in her short stories, in her play; we had long been aware of her as somebody and something in particular; and from now on, she must command our attention. We have never before had anything quite like:
Oh, life is a glorious song, A medley of extemporanea; And love is a thing that can never go wrong; And I am Marie of Roumania.
any more than anything like:
That a heart falls tinkling down, Never think it ceases. Every likely lad in town. Gathers up the pieces. If there's one gone whistling by Would I let it grieve me? Let him wonder if I lie; Let him half believe me.
We have nothing quite like the hard dark crystals of Dorothy Parker's irony: they do not spark with prismatic colors and a great many of them are imperfect, but they are beginning to become valuable.
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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 curse. Once there was a heart I broke; And that, I think, is worse.
Many of these unobtrusive versicles have not only beauty but also a turn of wit which is out of the ordinary. It would seem, to seek an explanation probably far too recondite, that Miss Parker, especially in such a poem as “Epitaph for a Darling Lady,” caught the spirit of Campion, rejected the conceits of that poet, or at least rejected the extravagance of Campion's conceits, and then liberated his spirit to energize anew in this very present modern day.
One would like to show Dorothy Parker's deftness with the sonnet form, which she turns to lighter use than is customary with poets. (Indeed, she is quite without veneration.) And one would like also to display her humor as distinct from her wit. … Those who look into this jolly yet serious little book will find these things out for themselves, for none could skip a single poem if one tried.
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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 trying than a cross-word puzzle. If shop-girls spend hours fitting words into squares, why can they not spend hours fitting words into rhythms? Poetry, in spite of the stubborn notion to the contrary, is neither dull nor abstruse. As for poets—Shelley was a sheik, Sappho was a red-hot mamma, Villon swung a wicked sword, and Tennyson drank beer. Many of the present generation of women poets possess beauty and babies. If I have swung rather far from Dorothy Parker, it was only to give her little muse a great big hand.
Mrs. Parker, of course, owes much to Edna St. Vincent Millay. And I like to pass over those parts which are reminiscent or imitative of the master. For what Miss Millay did once so beautifully, can never be done again in the same manner. Mrs. Parker has her own particular field of frank American humor. She is slangy, vulgar, candid, and withal subtle, delicate and sparkling. The soul of wit distinguishes most of her pieces. “Résumé” a satirical rendition of Schopenhauer's expression, “the will to live”:
Razors pain you; Rivers are damp; Acids stain you; And drugs cause cramp; Guns aren't lawful; Nooses give; Gas smells awful: You might as well live.
And “Indian Summer” explains the hard-boiled woman:
In youth, it was a way I had To do my best to please, And change, with every passing lad, To suit his theories. But now I know the things I know, And do the things I do; And if you do not like me so, To hell, my love, with you!
“News Item” can hardly be omitted:
Men seldom make passes At girls who wear glasses.
And the final line of a poem called “Men” is a profound sigh from the depths of many a woman's heart:
They make me sick, they make me tired.
The frame-work of truth is very firm in these fluttering bits. For all their pertness and bravado they mirror, in most cases, quite genuine and profound experiences. They are not so different, after all, from the hyper-sensitive and extremely refined mind of Mrs. Meynell. She said:
I run, I run, I am gathered to thy heart,
with tender Victorian sentiment, Mrs. Parker says:
Because your eyes are slant and slow, Because your hair is sweet to touch, My heart is high again; but oh, I doubt if this will get me much—
with colloquial frankness. They were both in love, their moods and diction being only the outward manner of the time and place in which they were born.
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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 spangled ribaldry, a razor-keen intellect mocking a heart dark with desperation; “Ain't we got fun!” and “Weh! Weh!” rising to the lips at the same instant. And all the time, in spite of her telling you that you'll only find her in step with Trouble or Gloom, there she is off on a rainbow writing down a diamond-hard summary of the situation in a large round hand.
The lads I've met in Cupid's deadlock Were—shall we say?—born out of wedlock …
“I wouldn't have him back!” I hope Her mother washed her mouth with soap.
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance; God, for a man that solicits insurance!
There and there and well and well— Did he prick his finger!
She can contemplate the fretful porcupine with aplomb and a brilliant dexterity of rhyme, she can epigrammatize with the effectiveness of
A heart in half is chaste, archaic; But mine resembles a mosaic.
and she can achieve a lustral and beautiful sonnet, as in “Fair Weather.” What the devil can you do with such a girl? You can be moved to sympathy by some expression of evident distress, or to admiration for some gallantry of attitude, or to gravity at an occasional tenderness,—and then she flips a last line at you like a little carmine fire-cracker exploding under your nose. And it is all Dorothy Parker.
We shouldn't wonder if this ability completely and idiomatically to present the shimmering paradox of herself were not the secret of the deserved popularity of Mrs. Parker's verse. “Shouldn't wonder”? We know perfectly well it is. Long may she wave!
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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 myself went through a great deal just to get the loan of Enough Rope which is no better book than this, although it is a bit thicker. We are willing to pursue Miss Parker to her extremest thicket in spite of, or rather for the sake of, her quick and cruel barbs.
One of the chief reasons why we like her is that most of us were taught in our childhood that we mustn't “sass back” or thumb our noses, and Miss Parker does these things so well for us. She sasses back at Life, or the Universe, or God, or What Have You, in nimble and absurd rhyme such as we never in the world could have thought of ourselves. And besides, we like her because she laughs at herself. We always like people to laugh at themselves. It takes their attention away from us.
The poems are not all impudent. “Fair Weather,” for instance, is an excellent serious sonnet. But in her milder verses there are phrases that recall Housman and rhythms that are Millaysian, as this:
The day that I was christened— It's a hundred years, and more! A hag came and listened At the white church door.
We listen to her more gleefully when she is bad tempered, shocking, macabre. We like it when she makes us gasp by coming out neatly with this:
Dear dead Victoria Rotted cosily; In excelsts gloria. And R. I. P.
These three letters sound so reckless and indecent! Or—but we ought not to quote any more. That would be giving away too much of what is really the property of the author and her publishers, and we don't want Miss Parker to starve to death. We hope she is not telling the truth when she says:
I'm done with this burning and giving And reeling the rhymes of my woes. And how I'll be making my living. The Lord in His mystery knows.
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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 the lustre on a Persian bowl, is proof that civilization is itself a philosophy, Dorothy Parker is writing poetry deserving high praise. If I compare her to Horace and Martial I do so largely, since I am no Latinist, and can better describe the perfection of her admirable lyrics by a comparison with that almost forgotten humorist, Thomas Hood, who had a gift of beauty second only to his contemporary, Keats, and yet could twist a stanza into laughter with one deft, inimitable line. Hood was a romantic, and when in his vein of sentiment was too much the slave of his mood to lift out into wit. He wrote one of Dorothy Parker's finest poems (“Requiescat”) in an epigram—the same figure, the same twist, but all made into farce. And in his serious poems, the last line, in which Mrs. Parker stabs sorrow with a jest, is to be found not in the verse but in the pathetic commentaries of his letters. Dorothy Parker has, it seems to me, perfected his art—
Drink and dance and laugh and lie, Love, the reeling midnight through, For tomorrow we shall die! (But, alas, we never do.)
This is slight; her powers are better expressed in “The Evening Primrose”
You know the bloom, unearthly white, That none has seen by morning light— The tender moon alone, may bare Its beauty to the secret air. Who'd venture past its dark retreat Must kneel, for holy things and sweet. That blossom, mystically blown, No man may gather for his own Nor touch it, lest it droop and fall. … Oh, I am not like that at all!
A lesser humorist would have overstressed the virginal beauty, a lesser poet would have failed to make the last line poignant as well as pungent.
We are easily thrown off by lightness and good humor, for pain and a burning heart may be taken, that way, in homeopathic doses. The river of criticism rolls muddy and splashing about difficult metaphysical poetry which grunts and wheezes unintelligibilities, like a Chinese poet speaking through the mouth of a hippopotamus, while we forget the perfect poems, so lucid as to seem simple, so simple in theme as to seem obvious, yet with three quarters of what matters packed in their lines—
Ah, what avails the sceptered race! Ah, what the form divine! What every virtue, every grace! Rose Aylmer, all were thine. Rose Aylmer, whom these wakeful eyes May weep, but never see, A night of memories and sighs I consecrate to thee.
Or, to go back to Hood—
I saw thee, lovely Ines, Descend alone the shore, With bands of noble gentlemen, And banners waved before; And gentle youth and maidens gay, And snowy plumes they wore: It would have been a beauteous dream— If it had been no more!
Yet I suspect that one should quote Latin rather than English to parallel the edged fineness of Dorothy Parker's verse. This belle dame sans merci has the ruthlessness of the great tragic lyricists whose work was allegorized in the fable of the nightingale singing with her breast against a thorn. It is disillusion recollected in tranquillity where the imagination has at last controlled the emotions. It comes out clear, and with the authentic sparkle of a great vintage. I attempt no real criticism here, but I do assert that these poems [in Death and Taxes] deserve criticism and appraisal far more than many much bewritten books of more pretentious cerebration, yet with less beauty of technique and far less depth of emotion. She writes of violets—
You are brief and frail and blue— Little sisters, I am, too. You are heaven's masterpieces— Little loves, the likeness ceases.
But there is no frailty in her poetry, and its brevity is in space not in time.
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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 Swift, Matthew Prior—English satirical poets such as these slashed with a vigor one will not find in the versicles of Dorothy Parker. But the latter will be read with more genuine pleasure on the part of most. Perhaps the nearest Mrs. Parker comes to vinegar unmixed with honey is in this epitaph for a very rich man:
He'd have the best, and that was none too good; No barrier could hold before his terms. terms. He lies below, correct in cypress wood, And entertains the most exclusive worms.
But even here, even if there is some slight acidity, the conception is sufficiently whimsical to draw a smile.
The most nearly humorous piece in the collection is, perhaps, one of six stanzas bearing the caption, “The Danger of Writing Defiant Verse.” It begins with the statement, “Now I have another lad,” and he is not at all an ardent wooer, a matter of great relief, as advertised in the poem up to the final stanza, which is as follows:
He's none to kiss away my mind— A slower way is his. Oh, Lord! On reading this I find A silly lot he is.
As such verse should be, if it is to be at all, these epigrammatic lyrics in Death and Taxes are frequently as nearly perfect as one may hope for in this more careless age. The collection does not, as a whole, maintain the perfection of Housman, but this, “My Own,” could not be scorned by The Shropshire Lad himself:
Then let them point my every tear And let them mock and moan; Another week, another year, And I'll be with my own Who slumber now by night and day In fields of level brown; Whose hearts within their breasts were clay Before they laid them down.
For a last word, the reviewer will return to one of the several epitaphs in the little group labeled as a whole, “Tombstones in the Starlight.” The lines are for an actress:
Her name, cut clear upon this mar- ble cross, Shines as it shone when she was still on earth; While tenderly the mild, agreeable moss Obscures the figures of her date of birth.
Death and Taxes, besides being a small package of literary delights, is also significant in the progression of the author. The magazines and the columnists early helped Dorothy Parker to such triumph that something less than her best is so easy for her to get away with that, even in this small volume, she too often yields to temptation. This is a pity, for Dorothy Parker can at times so mingle the serious and the gay, can so pack truth into the twist of a line, that a very high place in the line of English minor poets—a line that can boast such names as Lovelace and Herrick—can be hers for the winning. Occasionally she does win.
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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 and blue— Little sisters, I am, too. You are heaven's masterpieces— Little loves, the likeness ceases.
But when the reader has undergone enough verse of this sort, the “surprise” no longer surprises him, since it lacks the depth of observation to keep the epigram fresh.
III. There is a trace of poetic quality in the occasional sharp ability to press an emotion into a simple description. It is on this account that one regrets her contentment with the easy rhythms, the banal feelings and phrases, by means of which she has become a social personage mentioned in newspaper notes with Amelia Earhart, Heywood Broun, Rudy Vallée, and Jack Dempsey. A bit like
the strange new body of the dead,
the gay “Salome's Dancing-lesson,” an echo now and then of a Shakespeare song: these make us wish that she had chosen to go more firmly in the direction of poetry.
As for what Henry Seidel Canby calls her “exquisite certainty of technique,” it is enough to note that it is easy to attain a technical glibness when the construction of verse is seen to involve none of the problems of the art of poetry.
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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 appealed to me. It is obvious that earlier influences were the earlier Miss Millay and A. E. Housman. But with “Portrait of the Artist,” Mrs. Parker came wholly into her own. What the average reader searches for are such pithy triumphs as
Men seldom make passes At girls who wear glasses
which has been quoted from Alaska to Patagonia. And Mrs. Parker has shown that she can practise French verse-forms with the best, even to that Rondeau Redoublé subtitled “And scarcely worth the trouble, at that.” Her chef d'oeuvre in the ballade, I think, is the “Ballade of Unfortunate Mammals,” in Death and Taxes.
Death and Taxes opened with a poem so sincere and touching, yet entirely unbathetic, “Prayer for a Prayer,” as to demand a reconsideration of the poet's province. In fact, she has several. She still wrote the epigram brilliantly (as in “The Flaw in Paganism”) but with a new depth. And I would point out that in “The Evening Primrose,” “My Own,” “The Sea,” “Midnight,” and that most significant and moving “Sonnet on an Alpine Night,” the wittiest woman of our time suddenly took on stature. For the fashioning of poetry depends upon depth of experience as well as upon extraordinary intuition. And here such emotion is conveyed clearly and directly, with a numbing truth. Many elements make up this complete and various book—of which this is by no means the least.
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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 is another that she slams behind her. For every cadenced sob in her book, there is a rhythmical grimace. These verses are, indeed, the record of a constant shuttling between sentimentality and cynicism, of romanticism forever plucked hastily from the stalk, but never uprooted from the soil, of instinct at war with experience and at least half the time victorious.
After ten years Mrs. Parker strikes me as having achieved—as one so often puts it in the case of “weightier” writers—a kind of historical significance. These poems of hers remind us irresistibly of the era during which they were for the most part composed—the frantic Twenties, when people went gathering rosebuds with almost comic intensity and far too much self-consciousness: the frantic Twenties, when it was so imperative to be “honest” that most people became so at the cost of being insincere. No age, so shoulder-shrugging on the surface, was ever more uneasy underneath; and no age, forever denouncing the melodramatic, ever dramatized itself more constantly. The age gave birth to Hemingway, who remains the classic—indeed, the overworked—example of a man who misrepresented his emotions. As everybody now agrees, he was forever insisting that he was hardboiled to conceal the fact that he was hopelessly sentimental. Mrs. Parker played the cynic in much the same spirit of dissimulation. And no one has ever made clearer than she how inseparable from sentimentality cynicism is, just as no one has ever made sentimentality more outrageous by simply juxtaposing it to laughter.
On the serious side, therefore, there is no emotional balance in her poetry, just as there was no emotional balance in the age that produced it. There is equally no emotional relaxation: when Mrs. Parker is not ostentatiously prostrated, she is ostentatiously unmoved. Almost all her serious poems strike a false or self-conscious note: the emotion that transpires is inconsistent with the situation that determined it. Further, the high technical polish of her sentimental poems makes them artificial; there is nothing more incongruous than studied heart-break. Indeed, between emotional expression that is very simple and artless and emotion operating at white heat under the sovereign control of a deeply poetic mind, every intermediate stage is in danger of a discrepancy between meaning and manner—the two do not coincide; and Mrs. Parker seldom outwits that danger. In her case there is perhaps the additional drawback that she is sometimes derivative; the ghosts of Housman, Millay and Elinor Wylie, to name no others, too often direct her imagination.
One comes back to Mrs. Parker's light verse with the greatest pleasure; with its sharp wit, its clean bite, its perfectly conscious—and hence delightful—archness, it stands re-reading amply. Here her high technical polish has great virtue; sometimes cracking out a surprise effect with an absolute minimum of wind-up, sometimes achieving a foreseen effect by means so dexterous it is exhilarating to watch them. Mrs. Parker can extend anticlimax to irresistible bathos by altering the pitch of her language (from the high-flown to the highly colloquial) at the exact moment she alters her meaning. But what, of course, is more important is the sense of personality that converts what might otherwise be merely a witty idea into a dramatic, however cockeyed, situation; a sense of personality that gives us not cynicism in the abstract but laughter applied to an objective. There is no one else in Mrs. Parker's special field who can do half as much. I suspect that she will survive not only as the author of some first-rate light verse but also as a valuable footnote to the Twenties, out of whose slant on existence that light verse sprang.
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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 moon's turned black; For I loved him, and He didn't love back.
For advice to young women she would be hard to beat:
Lady, lady, never start Conversation toward your heart; Keep your pretty words serene; Never murmur what you mean … Be you wise and never sad, You will get your lovely lad. Never serious be, nor true, And your wish will come to you— And if that makes you happy, kid, You'll be the first it ever did.
Housman and Drayton and Suckling and Donne—there are echoes in these poems of all who have concerned themselves with the follies and transience of love: but Miss Parker puts the feminine point of view as it has seldom been put before, and the divergence is exciting. Too much on one note, and not by any means all equally successful, these poems are nevertheless a real contribution to epigrammatic lore.
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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 satiric commentaries on all the phenomena of the jazz age—from radios and riveters to complexes and indigestion. They include, also, some demoniac parodies on Housman and Millay, which are, perhaps, the cream of the jest. Mr. Hoffenstein is funny at the expense of practically everything and ends, consequently, by not being so funny after all. He has ridden his formula to death, and one quickly wearies of it. The wisecracks and the ironic twist at the end of each poem arrive with such unfailing regularity that they cease to evoke a chuckle of surprise. One begins to feel that the poet's humor is not so sophisticated as it sounds—that it is tinctured, indeed, with the cheap cynicism of the adolescent.
It is this pitfall of monotony which Dorothy Parker escapes, although Sunset Gun is hardly so brave a salute as Enough Rope. Again, as in her earlier book, Mrs. Parker thumbs her nose at faithless lovers and douses one with cold water at the end of a deceptively gentle lyric. Unlike Mr. Hoffenstein, however, she is able to reconcile flippancy with the exquisite and haunting phrase. The poems entitled “A Pig's-Eye View of Literature” are a match for his parodies—her jeers at love are more impudent and pointed. But Dorothy Parker is willing, at times, to pluck a string of genuine emotion, and in so doing she proves her superior caliber. Her fragile sonnets, her crisp and delicate ballads, have a quality of loveliness which is not evanescent. The gay defiance of “A Whistling Girl” and the tenderness of “The Maid Servant at the Inn,” alike, belong to the best tradition of lyric verse. Although a sly and jaunty irony is her especial gift—one would not wish it otherwise—it is pleasant to know that Dorothy Parker can occasionally forget to be a New York wit. Mr. Hoffenstein could profit by her example.
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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 less.” “I don't call Mrs. Brown bad, She's un-moral, dear, not immoral—” “Well, really, it makes me so mad To think what I paid for that coral!” “My husband says, often, ‘Elsie, You feel things too deeply, you do—” “Yes, forty a month, if you please, Oh, servants impose on me, too.”
(VF, September 1915, 32; Silverstein, 70-71)
The poem continues for six more stanzas, a deliberate exercise in heteroglossia long before the advent of Mikhail Bakhtin, locating at once a practice that would only continue, if more subtly, throughout her career. As her reader searches for a point of entry within the superficial litany—time passing through triviality—the juxtaposition of all the comments makes each of them clichéd. Each expression judges all the others, and in turn is open to judgment. “Any Porch” is anyplace and about anyone including, potentially, Parker's readers.
It did not take Parker long to learn that the iamb was her most forceful foot and that strict meter had a kind of dogtrot rhythm that would reinforce the commonness of the ideas and of the people she would write about, even when lines varied in the number of feet. Clichés, too, worked better when falling into taut quatrains and full rhymes. We do not know how many unpublished starts she made after “Any Porch,” but her second publication, “A Musical Comedy Thought,” shows such a technical advance.
My heart is fairly melting at the thought of Julian Eltinge; His vice versa, Vesta Tilley, too. Our language is so dexterous, let us call them ambi-sexterous,— Why hasn't this occurred before to you?
(VF, June 1916, 126; Silverstein, 86)
The poem relies too heavily on a Nash-like neologism, but her third published poem has married simple diction, iambic meter, and full rhyme without any crutches. “The Gunman and the Debutante” begins,
A wild and wicked gunman—one who held a gang in thrall— A menace to the lives of me and you, Was counting up, exultingly, the day's successful haul— As gunmen are extremely apt to do. A string of pearls, a watch or two, a roll of bills, a ring, Some pocketbooks—about a dozen, say— An emerald tiara—oh, a very pretty thing! Yes, really, quite a gratifying day.
(VF, October 1916, p. 120; Silverstein, 72-73)
The trisyllabic tiara is a particular challenge, but even this early, Dorothy Rothschild attempted to work into regular metrics the long and unusual word, jolting the most monotonous ideas and monotonal rhythms, breaking open language and thought through dialectic.
Somewhat surprisingly—and disappointingly, from our later perspective—Dorothy Rothschild now began parodying vers libre, then especially fashionable. Beginning with the February 1917 Vanity Fair, she wrote a series of “hate songs” in which her compact descriptions of typed personalities resemble the captions she had written for Vogue. The satire is glib, the targets wide, the rhythms of stanzas (which vary in length) slack. “Men: A Hate Song,” the first, is subtitled “I hate men. They irritate me” and opens with the “Serious Thinkers.”
There are the Serious Thinkers,— There ought to be a law against them. They see life, as through shell-rimmed glasses, darkly. They are always drawing their weary hands Across their wan brows. They talk about Humanity As if they had just invented it; They have to keep helping it along. They revel in strikes And they are eternally getting up petitions. They are doing a wonderful thing for the Great Unwashed,— They are living right down among them. They can hardly wait For “The Masses” to appear on the newsstands, And they read all those Russian novels,— The sex best sellers.
The strength of such poetry lies in a distanced tone and clever observations. It is also a poetry that must always hit the bull's-eye, and so quickly grows tiresome. But such poems made her very popular then, and she went on to write more for Vanity Fair and a good many for Life, on relatives (with a stanza on husbands from a liberated woman's perspective); on actresses, actors, bohemians, slackers, and office colleagues; on bores, the drama, parties, movies, books, the younger set, summer resorts, wives, and college boys; and F. P. A. and others parodied or imitated the form.1
Parker's free verse can be likened to prose lists and conversational fragments she wrote for Life, but with another parody, called “Oh, Look—I Can Do It, Too” in Vanity Fair for December 1918 (48; Silverstein, 76-77), she began turning her attention to French forms, the ballade and rondeau, made popular by Eugene Field, Austin Dobson, and F. P. A. Once again she remained multivoiced; still she strove to look casual. “Ballade of Big Plans” takes its chorus from Julia Cane: “She loved him. He knew it. And love was a game that two could play at.” The last stanza and envoy read,
Recollections can only bore us; Now it's over, and now it's through Our day is dead as a dinosaurus. Other the paths that you pursue. What is she doing to spend her day at? Fun demands, at a minimum, two— And love is a game that two can play at. Prince, I'm packing away the rue: I'll show them something to shout “Hooray” at. I've got somebody else in view. And love is a game that two can play at.(2)
The clichés skewer Julia Cane—and other popular works middle-class in taste and finally empty of meaning because of their conventionality. The residual wit available to poetry by which the last line, supplying a contrary attitude, provides a backward-looking tension dialogically, reverberates here by itself being a cliché. Thus the victory of any sort is potentially illusive and delusive. Compare the earlier “Idyl”:
While, all forgotten, the world rolls along, Think of us two, in a world of our own Now that you've thought of it seriously— Isn't it grand that it never can be?
(Life, July 7, 1921, 3; Silverstein, 93)
Soon this became predictable, so she tried other overriding structures, such as “moral tales” where the punch line in the final maxim both opposes the preceding lines with its more distanced tone and moves the particular into a congruent generalization.
Gracie, with her golden curls, Took her mother's string of pearls. Figuring—as who would not?— It would pawn for quite a lot. Picture, then, her indignation When she found it imitation! Though her grief she tries to smother, Grace can't feel the same towards Mother! All pretence and sham detest; Work for nothing but the best.
(Life, May 4, 1922, 7; Silverstein, 124)
Like mother, like daughter (if she but knew it). Yet “the best” in the final line here—given both the prevalent situation and the inadequate moral—remains deliberately ambiguous. Another exercise in affecting overall structure is her “Somewhat Delayed Spring Song.”
Crocuses are springing, Birds are lightly winging, Corydon is singing, To his rustic lute; Sullen winter passes, Shepherds meet their lasses, Tender-tinted grasses Shoot. All the world's a-thrilling, Meadow larks are shrilling, Little brooks are trilling, You, alone, are mute; Why do you delay it? Love's a game—let's play it, Go ahead and say it— Shoot!
(SEP, September 30, 1922, 105; Silverstein, 137)
Last to be developed, then, was what has become the recognizable Parker persona, that of the woman who is both exploited and thick-skinned, who is put upon but can equally well put down others. “Song” suggests this with cynical wisdom.
Clarabelle has golden hair, Mabel's eyes are blue, Nancy's form is passing fair, Mary's heart is true. Chloë's heart has proved to be Something else again; Not so much on looks is she, But she gets the men.
(SEP, November 18, 1922, 93; Silverstein, 144)
The rueful conclusion—what would become another Parker hallmark—combines innocence and worldliness, acceptance and condemnation. The final attitude in such dialogic writing—if there is any final attitude—rests with the reader.
“Folk Song” has the same idea, but reverses the roles.
Rafe's a fine young gentleman; Tom's with virtue blest. Jack, he broke my heart and ran,— I love him the best.
(Life, October 16, 1924, 7; Silverstein, 163)
The earlier “Invictus,” built by clichés, has still more subtlety.
Black though my record as darkest jet, Give me, I beg, my devil's due;
Only remember, I've never yet Said, “How's the world been treating you?”
(Life, January 27, 1921, 161; Silverstein, 84)
So tight is her control by 1923 that she can be compared, and fruitfully, to Heinrich Heine.3 Little wonder that by then her “little woman” persona was being widely imitated.4 She had found, by trial and error, the subject and stance that characterize the best of her poetry.
See, for example, The World, March 19, 1922, 11:1; January 2, 1925, 9:1. The first series here lists Dorothy's “hate songs” in VF, the second her “hymns of hate” in Life; see Silverstein, 187.
Quoted by F. P. A. in Innocent Merriment (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1942), 159-60. For F. P. A.'s parodied response see his column in The World for September 22, 1924, 13:1. F. P. A. credits Villon with teaching him the form. An early example of Parker's rondeaus is in SEP, November 11, 1922, 84; see Silverstein, 142.
Cf., for example, “Ich trat in jene hallen” or “Es liegt der heisse Sommer,” which Joseph Auslander translates:
The fervent flame of Summer Lies in your lovely cheek; But in your heart the Winter Lies old and cold and bleak. All this will change, my precious, And sooner than you seek: The Summer in your heart, dear, The Winter in your cheek.
(Heinrich Heine, Bittersweet Poems [Mount Vernon, N.Y.: Peter Pauper Press, 1956], 19).
The best-known imitator of Parker is Fanny Heaslip Lea. See as an example her “Obituary” in Harper's Bazaar, March 1931, 156. My research has uncovered 68 poems in Life between 1920-1926 that Parker omitted from her volumes of published poetry, as well as 15 from Vanity Fair (1915-1920), 6 from The World (1923-1929), 5 from New Yorker (1925-1938), and 8 from The Saturday Evening Post (1922-1923). All are reprinted in Silverstein.