It was Prof. Eunice D’souza who at the beginning of the year introduced us to the poems of Dorothy Parker. It was just a brief glance, something not from within the syllabus and forgotten the next day. But ?Resume’ and ?War Song’ would not get out of my head that easily. Intrigued by the woman who famously said ?Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’, I took the first opportunity to find out more about her. Therefore this internal assessment project focuses on Dorothy Parker’s first set of published poems, Enough Rope (1926).
America of the 1920s
Enough Rope was published in December of 1926, and by the spring of 1927 it was making publishing history by becoming a best seller, an almost unprecedented achievement for a volume of poetry. Its poems became a mantra of sorts for the new American woman. The new American woman who was voting for the first time and was not afraid to be seen drinking, smoking, sniffing cocaine, bobbing one’s hair, dancing the Charleston, necking and getting ‘caught’. Victorianism and the turn of the century Gibson Girl were out, and in her place was a saucy, booze-drinking, cigarette-smoking, knee-length-dress-wearing flapper. In fact the loosening of restrictions on women was one of the most significant legacies of the 1920s. Young women were wearing dresses and shockingly tight bathing suits that showed leg skin from the knee on down–an unprecedented flaunting of flesh. They were caking on makeup, rouge no less, with the aplomb of streetwalkers–and mothers despaired. Talking about Freud and sex were signs of hip ness. While showing feminine flesh women also sported an androgynous look, cutting their hair like boys (bobbed hair), but adding a feminine touch through shingling. This was the era of prohibition, Al Capone and Jazz music. Overall, the decade is often seen as a period of great contradiction: of rising optimism and deadening cynicism, of increasing and decreasing faith, of great hope and great despair. There were great upheavals in the cultural and societal foundations of America. Writers, musicians and artists no longer attempted to extol the virtues of 19th Century rural America, but instead embraced a hedonistic, individualism that was personified in the quickened pace of the 20th Century American city.
The poems of Enough Rope gave glimpses of the age of ?anything goes’ and its heavy cost in terms of one’s emotions. These verses, which became something of a national rage, were thought to be strong stuff: brusque, bitter and unwomanly in their presumed cynicism. They gave the impression of asserting a woman’s equal rights inside a sexual relationship, including the right of infidelity. They fitted perfectly into the pre-depression era, when it was fashionable to be irresponsible and bitter. And American women everywhere wanted to be ?smarty’ like the poet and short story writer Dorothy Parker.
?In American literature, many writers of the past years faced at some point the duty of silencing personal opinions, feelings, and emotions. Although many accept this duty without a moment’s hesitation or guilt, some who do not accept this openly create a voice of disgust and doubt that arises eventually in their work. In the twentieth century, no one epitomizes this very voice more than did Dorothy Parker. Dorothy rebelled from her creativity block, in her early years, by releasing a series of works, which examined herself and her society, as she knew it to be. Dorothy Parker took offence to a world that she saw as mindless and lacking of any chaotic bliss.?
Dorothy Parker was born in West End, New Jersey on August 22, 1893. She held many positions of work in a grand career that spanned over thirty years. She began her career in the New York area near her home as a drama critic for the magazine Vanity Fair. From the years 1917 to 1920 she held the position at the magazine till she moved on to another publication, New Yorker, in which she reviewed book publications and theatre performances from 1927 to 1933. Dorothy Parker’s legacy as an objective writer began to take shape in the late 1920’s when she released her first light verses, which were titled Enough Rope in 1926, Sunset Gun in 1928, and Death and Taxes in 1931. Although she went on to, possibly more successful, careers in her life, the period of these verses by her were the most honestly evaluating works of her lifetime. A lifetime that was filled with her own alcoholic depressions, ill-fated love affairs and attempted suicides. All of which have a bearing on Dorothy Parker’s views of truth, which come to light in the form of poems that are long, short, detailed, vague, but always intuitive.
Dorothy parker’s contribution to the humour of the period was a combination of classical practices with her own very personal tone, a tone of the carefree but victimised ?little woman’, which gave to her work its special profile, its recognizable hallmarks. She 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 work to be simple, as colloquial as possible, for that way she could extend her satire to those who spoke as her lines speak. Her work observes social facts and customs, sees them representatively rather than in particularities, and then invites the happy or scornful laughter of criticism. Structurally her poems often began with a hyperbole, develop by antithetical ideas, or end with a surprise, a twist. To locate Dorothy Parker’s unique flavour, it is simplest to keep in mind her short poems where, despite the compactness of the form, all her attitudes and techniques are in play. Here she concentrates on a specific situation or moment, the foreground sharply focussed in time and space. Often but not always, she extends her canvas by burlesque, pun or paradox; often too the wit is reflexive, and irony becomes irony of the self (and even of the poem, of poetry). By restricting her scope, her concentration on the paraphernalia of life never clutters her line as it never clutters her point of view. What she strives for in her poems is an elegant casualness. The discrepancy between the seriousness of her aim and the playful tone of her presentation provides not only a kind of cool satire but also a forceful constricted irony. Indeed her work is so cool in its fundamental bitterness that she has from the first appealed to a very wide audience-both those wishing simple amusement and those who recognise her sardonic wit.
?Here is poetry that is ?smart’ in the fashion designer’s sense of the word?Mrs. Parker has her own particular field of frank American humour. She is slangy, vulgar, candid and withal subtle, delicate and sparkling. The soul of wit distinguishes most of her pieces?for all their pertness and bravado they mirror, in most cases, quite genuine and profound experiences.?
Of Enough Rope in Poetry, April 1927
Enough Rope appeared from Boni and Liveright for two dollars, in a grey dust jacket with yellow lettering-?A woman supplies enough rope to hang a hundred Egos?-and a dangling rope for illustration; it went through eight printings, a phenomenal bestseller. Therefore from the title itself Dorothy Parker suggests her conscious adoption of the role of satirist, one bemused by the human situation and sufficiently superior to poke fun at it. The themes that run through the volume are those with which she was by now identified: unrequited love, loneliness, death and hypocrisy.
To appreciate the peculiarly successful poetic of Enough Rope, we must see how Dorothy parker starts with the briefest possible situation, catches it at a split moment, and dramatises it through a voice unaware of the clich?s on which it rests.
So silent I when Love was by
He yawned, and turned away;
But Sorrow clings to my apron-strings,
I have so much to say.
Dorothy Parker’s poetry is dramatic not ruminative. But by puns, clich?s and unhappy word choices, her poems invite us to reflect on the sharp difference between poet and persona. It is this implied contrast, which provides point and force, as with ?Interview?
The ladies men admire, I’ve heard,
Would shudder at a wicked word.
Their candle gives a single light;
They’d rather stay at home at night.
They do not keep awake till three,
Nor read erotic poetry.
They never sanction the impure,
Nor recognize an overture.
They shrink from powders and from paints.
So far, I have had no complaints.
?Interview? deals mainly with the subject of relationships. In Interview, Dorothy Parker ponders why certain ladies seem attractive to men despite qualities that Parker sees as redundant and thoughtless. Ladies who Parker says Would shudder at a wicked word, and, not keep awake till three, Nor read erotic poetry.? seem to possess a quality, or perhaps lack one, which makes them attractive. While asking this question in a
sarcastic manner, Dorothy Parker seems to loathe these types of women for their condition. In turn, Dorothy values her own character and shows no remorse for her abilities as she states, So far, I have had no complaints.? Mrs. Parker’s vision of herself as an intelligent, well-rounded woman who is under appreciated by the opposite sex exposes an underlying problem, which existed in the early twentieth century and continues today in sections of society.
Consider the satire of ?Pictures in the Smoke?
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
The inability of the persona here to rescue even her first lover- to award him reality- is a certain indication of the hollowness of her own self, of her attitude towards love. The poem is clearly self-condemning.
But Dorothy Parker’s poems are also fun. In assessing both the absurdity of human behaviour generally and the foolishness of her personae in particular.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Simplicity of diction, clarity of stance, easiness of rhyme, and settled ness of form and presentation run through all her poems. Her strength lies in her distanced tone and clever observations.
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.
?The New Love? is essentially negative, its wit grounded in a rueful attitude, self-depreciation and world worn cynicism; the poem has a kind of half hearted cheerfulness.
The New Love
If it shine or if it rain,
Little will I care or know.
Days, like drops upon a pane,
Slip, and join, and go.
At my door’s another lad;
Here’s his flower in my hair.
If he see me pale and sad,
Will he see me fair?
I sit looking at the floor.
Little will I think or say
If he seek another door;
Even if he stay.
The verse, ?Inscription For the Ceiling of a Bedroom?, seems to focus her mind on the endless and dull cycle of everyday life. Mrs. Parker questions the habit of waking up every day and trying to walk in blinded woe?, as she says. At the end of the verse Dorothy refers to herself as a fool for waking up every day and attempting this journey through life. The concept of life in Dorothy Parker’s interpretation seems to coincide with working jobs, relationships with others , and even her own self security in her position in life. One could understand her questioning of such things if she indeed felt trapped in her previous line of work and unable to express her opinions on all situations.
Inscription for the Ceiling of a Bedroom
Daily dawns another day;
I must up, to make my way.
Though I dress and drink and eat,
Move my fingers and my feet,
Learn a little, here and there,
Weep and laugh and sweat and swear,
Hear a song, or watch a stage,
Leave some words upon a page,
Claim a foe, or hail a friend –
Bed awaits me at the end.
Though I go in pride and strength,
I’ll come back to bed at length.
Though I walk in blinded woe,
Back to bed I’m bound to go.
High my heart, or bowed my head,
All my days but lead to bed.
Up, and out, and on; and then
Ever back to bed again,
Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall –
I’m a fool to rise at all!
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.
This poem is confessional yet highly disciplined, conversational yet poetically rendered, the work displays a controlled imagination. Distanced reflection and careful analysis merge.
Shrewd and fastidious, in modulated language and tight form, trenchant humor opposing clich?d love conventions surprises, engages and amuses us, as in ?Words of Comfort to be Scratched on a Mirror?
Helen of Troy had a wandering glance;
Sappho’s restriction was only the sky;
Ninon was ever the chatter of France;
But oh, what a good girl am I!
In the verse, ?One Perfect Rose?, Dorothy switches her focus to the opposite end of the spectrum and probes the actions of a male from her past. In this verse, she questions a single rose, which she received from the man in question. Although she speaks of the man’s intentions, his emotions, the rose and its qualities in an adoring manner, Dorothy eventually asks why she has never received a limousine and then ponders her luck in matters such as this. Although this verse comes to us in a light hearted, comedic fashion, one eventually wonders of Dorothy Parker’s true meanings of whether she feels blessed or forsaken. Mrs. Parker’s apparent intentions seem to lead the reader to questions of Dorothy’s own self worth. Whether this effect was intentional or not, the verse, as all of Dorothy’s others, seem to be made for the people with the ‘pathos’ in mind. Although Mrs. Parker hints towards these issues, her stable vehicle for these ideas remains the rose, which even today remains a staple of romantic gestures.
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met.
All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet-
One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret;
My fragile leaves, it said, his heart enclose.
Love long has taken for his amulet
One perfect rose.
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.
Finally, in a title which fits her work, ?Portrait of the Artist? , Dorothy gives the reader a peak at her life as a writer and poet. Oh, lead me to a quiet cell, Dorothy states as she describes a setting in which an artist , presumably Dorothy , wants to be placed in a room cut off from the outside world and its self pleasing views. After describing this process, Dorothy states Come back in a half hour or so , And I will be in trouble. Here , Dorothy gives the reader who might fear or ponder her methods a chance to ponder his or her own opinion of Dorothy. The statement seems to come in a more outward view of Dorothy rather than from Dorothy herself. This gives the reader a chance to see Mrs. Parker’s feelings towards others who do not understand her work or views. All in all, the verse expresses the same desire to bare her soul now that her work has become more self reflective.
Oh, lead me to a quiet cell
Where never footfall rankles,
And bar the window passing well,
And gyve my wrists and ankles.
Oh, wrap my eyes with linen fair,
With hempen cord go bind me,
And, of your mercy, leave me there,
Nor tell them where to find me.
Oh, lock the portal as you go,
And see its bolts be double….
Come back in half an hour or so,
And I will be in trouble.
And ?Observation? echoes the female sentiment of the age.
If I don’t drive around the park,
I’m pretty sure to make my mark.
If I’m in bed each night by ten.
I may get back my looks again.
If I abstain from fun and such.
I’ll probably amount to much;
But I shall stay the way I am.
Because I do not give a damn.
In the best of this book, Dorothy Parker is already the most accomplished classical epigrammatist of her time.
Dorothy Parker’s work was clearly a product of its times even as it on occasion transcends them. She brought her own life to her work; from her use of precision of detail, purity of language, and economy of expression, her poetry took on a maturity, clarity of tone and compactness of form. She saw the range of humour stretching from open sarcasm to a tired and mordant stoicism, and her poetry reflects this wider perspective. ?Her poems?, Corey Ford has observed, ?were exquisite cameos, poignant and haunting? as well as sudden comic reversals.
Enough Rope by Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker by Arthur F. Kinney
The Portable Dorothy Parker
Poetry and Poets