Literary biography is often an opaque filter for the work of modern writers. The interference comes not so much from the cockeyed analysis we may encounter of an artist’s life but from the mass of irrelevant detail. We read the novels and short stories of Ernest Hemingway and J.D. Salinger but also know the events of their lives recorded in newspapers, magazines, books, newsreels, movies, television interviews, memoirs, court documents, and websites. But what does any of that biographical detail have to do with the merits of A Farewell to Arms or Franny and Zooey?
Attempting to separate Dorothy Parker, even for a few minutes, from the mystique of her life—the awful details, if you like—is not easy. She came of age as a writer in the first great morning of modern publicity just before and after World War I. She wrote for the first- and second- and third-rate magazines that Franklin P. Adams and P.G. Wodehouse and H.L. Mencken wrote for and joked about in the 1910’s. In the 20’s, she was a founding member of the Algonquin Roundtable; one of the first writers for the New Yorker; a friend of Woollcott, Thurber, Ross, Benchley, et al.; and became famous for her smart remarks in conversation, gossip columns, book reviews, and drama notices. She was one of the first generation of Hollywood scenarists and won an Oscar for best screenplay for A Star Is Born (1937). You can see her credits on a number of other good movies, such as Hitchcock’s The Saboteur (1943).
Parker also wrote short stories and poems, some of them very good. And to try to pull any of this work loose from the tangle of her marriages, love affairs, and suicide attempts, and those of her friends and family, is like attempting to read a paragraph by Hemingway or Salinger without seeing a whole life behind it: not impossible but often difficult. So, for the rest of this piece, I shall not say another word about her life but just about her poetry, which is among the best written in the last century in a style that has almost disappeared—classical.
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.
In an essay on Alexander Pope, Lytton Strachey said that the key to understanding the classical style is found in the quality of compression. It unites, through rhyme and meter and other literary devices, various ideas and objects into an intense, coherent statement. Let us play an Orwellian game and rewrite that poem as a modern paragraph.
Thoughtful analysis leaves us convinced that suicide, as a rational alternative to existence, involves use of materials with secondary effects parallel to and even counter to the desired death so discomforting as to challenge the original desire for self-extinction . . .
We can stop there. The Parker poem concentrates the ghastly choices that might come before a suicide attempt into a nightmarish list of understatements. My prose fabrication almost obscures the topic completely, using many more words without including one concrete noun. Which passage would you give to a person in especially narrow psychological straits? The poem, in memorable classical fashion, reduces the alternatives to their starkest reality—nouns and verbs. The prose passage destroys the meaning of the poem and, most importantly, of the idea behind it. The poem is buoyant, comic, memorable; the prose is lard.
I do not mean to simplify what classical verse attempts, but when we look at the poets whose styles are classical—Chaucer, Marvell, Dryden, Swift, Pope, Goldsmith, Gray, Tom Moore, Byron, and Praed down to Yeats, Frost, Belloc, Roy Campbell, and Parker in the last century—we see that poetic compression of an idea has intensified and clarified it, sharpening whatever edge it has to the finest possible blade of effect, often comic. Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Keats, Hopkins, Browning, Marianne Moore, and Dylan Thomas do something different. Their language is denser, compacted; their intention, less didactic (even allowing for Milton); their lyricism, more obvious; and they are rarely comic, with the exceptions of Shakespeare, Browning, and Moore. They also concentrate words, but less to sharpen the meaning than to intensify the sound, allowing the meaning to be drawn from that intensity.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragon-
flies draw flame
The force that through the green
fuse drives the flower
The first line is from Hopkins; the second, Dylan Thomas. They push to the extreme what Shakespeare, Donne, and Keats had started. Dorothy Parker is not of their school. Comedy is an essential element of her style.
To down all kings and presidents
Our Mr. Tench proposes;
His loudly uttered sentiments
Are redder than the roses.
He urges anarchism’s cause
In terms concise, but notable;
And what he says about the laws
Would barely pass as quotable.
Sharp as her humor can be, it usually mellows, accepting the parlor-red for what he is. And if a certain type of person, a certain kind of human entanglement, will always be with us, death is at the end of it all. Morley Callaghan (himself a writer of the 1920’s) wisely remarked of Hemingway that he kept death in his work in the same way that a medieval scholar kept a skull on his writing table, to remind him of his own mortality. So it is with Parker. She may have been perfectly happy when she wrote “Satin,” but its bitterness is convincing, suggesting Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” a generation later. Yet she is never as personal as Plath and always seems somehow to use the formality (for want of a better word) of her style to keep her despair at a comic, or at least an ironic, distance.
Wool’s to line a miser’s chest
Crape’s to calm the old;
Velvet hides an empty breast;
Satin’s for the bold.
Lawn is for a bishop’s yoke;
Linen’s for a nun;
Satin is for wiser folk—
Would the dress were done!
Satin glows in candle-light—
Satin’s for the proud!
They will say who watch at night,
“What a fine shroud!”
That poem shows the influence, I think (we never really know), of Emily Dickinson, whom I omitted from my list of classical poets but who probably belongs there. Dickinson, A.E. Housman, and Robert Frost all kept the classical tradition alive and popular well into the 20th century, and, in Frost’s case, within living memory. At least one Roman poet, Catullus, also comes to mind whenever you read Parker for more than a few minutes. A nameless absent lover—physically gone but still very much in mind—is often apotheosized in her poems in a tone that exudes a palpable contempt. It is not the lunacy of Plath or Anne Sexton but the disgust that very few poets—Catullus, Pope, and some others—have managed to set down for the ages toward those they once loved or admired, then came to detest. Few have ever bridled their anger as Parker did. Notice the careful combination of poetic commonplaces and precise language.
Somewhere the sunbeams dance and play;
(Where is the love that used to thrill?)
Somewhere the riotous roses sway,
(Little white love, so still, so still.)
Somewhere the skies of young April shine
Bright as the heavens we prayed to then . . .
Somewhere you’re pulling the same old line
The first line is conventional, but “Bright as the heavens we prayed to then . . . ” is clear and original, preparing us for the last two lines. After awhile, we are not surprised by her harshness, and the game playing is not annoying. There really is a shift in emotion with Parker: She is not simply tricking the reader; she is of two minds. She is amused by her circumstances, and then she is not. Comedy leads to anger, and the poem is completed. There is a great deal of the performer in her art, but that is not something to look down on in a time that has tolerated so much from attitudinizing poets. It is a valid strategy for a writer, and an obvious comic one. Yet comedy has slipped out of our poetic voice as the classical clarity has faded into the past.
Parker published several books of poetry between the world wars, including Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), Lament for the Living (1930), and Death and Taxes (1931). (Imagine an academic facilitator at a conference reading off that list of titles!) Colleen Breese’s introduction to the Complete Poems published by Penguin is a very good comprehensive essay, mixing in much biography. Most important, it is a first-rate edition that pays attention to chronology and the importance of the poems as collections of work, although the primary life of a poem is always by itself, not in an anthology. Many of Parker’s appeared in the New Yorker, the New Republic, the Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, but apparently never in small or literary magazines. She published no poetry after World War II, although she lived until 1967.
These career items are useful in assessing the value of her work. It is of a very high caliber, in some respects, but Parker’s technical skill seems to outrun what she has to say. Her use of classical elements for comic effect, including the essential devices of rhyme, meter, and a comic matching of sound and sense, is almost always skillful. She knows how to mix patches of apparent rosy feeling with paradox and reversal. There may be a silver lining, but there may be another, darker one under that; and so on. But the final range of her emotions—you might almost say of her thinking—is not great. She is a defeatist, if a rather heroic one. She is bitter, if able to give her anger a comic turn. The scope of an elegy by Dryden or Gray is beyond her—as it is beyond most poets, to be fair. Even Housman (and I do not mean to take anything away from his greatness as a poet) rises to a grander view of mankind than does Dorothy Parker. Not that she was merely a poet of the beautiful people or of Manhattan sophistication. But beneath it all is a stark simplicity directed at a very small range of life. Had she attempted something larger, she might have been a far greater poet.
There is no way of knowing for sure, and so few people who attempt to write poetry succeed that it is churlish to begrudge her what she achieved, even if you feel that she might have accomplished much more. The entire New Yorker/Algonquin school of writers is in need of a monumental critical sorting-out of talent. They left behind an aura of suspicion about their talent and sincerity that has caused much of their work—indeed, much of American literature between the wars—to be neglected. Besides Parker, Franklin P. Adams, Woollcott, Donald Ogden Stewart, Kaufman and Hart, Herman Mankewicz, Wolcott Gibbs, Edna Ferber, Robert Sherwood, Marc Connelly, and many others need critical reexamination. Only Thurber and Edmund Wilson have received their due. This first complete collection of Parker’s poetry is proof of that.
They were a contradictory group of writers, of people. They could be supportive and loyal in a pinch, yet frequently, sometimes memorably, bad-mouthed one another. Several started out their careers getting fired from newspapers or magazines for refusing to compromise their standards and then finished them with Hollywood contracts. There is nothing automatically contradictory about that; but with so much wealth and fame thrust upon them, in spite of strong doses of idealism and misery, we wind up back in that muddy biographical trench. The gossipy attention of such books as Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker and Pauline Kael’s The Citizen Kane Book (a fascinating work in places) did a great deal 25 years ago to confirm their status as opportunistic, alcoholic lightweights who got lucky. They certainly did little to enhance their stature as writers, which may turn out to be substantial.
[Complete Poems, by Dorothy Parker, Introduction by Colleen Breese (New York: Penguin Books) 320 pp., $13.95]