Prose from Poetry Magazine

Dorothy Parker’s Perfect Contempt

The Complete Poems.

by Jason Guriel
Dorothy Parker’s Perfect Contempt

Dorothy Parker: Complete Poems, introduced by Marion Meade.
Penguin Classics.$18.00.

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, like Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men, isn’t terribly optimistic about the male/female (or is it male/administrative-assistant) relationship. In one episode (of the poem, not the telecast), our hero, a certain “young man carbuncular,” visits with his lady friend, a “typist.” He’s after a joyless assignation, which is the wont of harried men in early Eliot (and hollow men—ad men—on booty calls); she’s playing easy to get, which is to say not defending herself against his “assaults.” On finishing his business, the young man departs, and the typist

          turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smooths her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.

      “This music crept by me upon the waters”

The Oliver Goldsmith number, which Eliot is sampling here, has it that the only art available to women who stoop to folly is the art of dying. But modern women, Eliot suggests, are too benumbed to dabble in the arts; they smooth their hair and put on records—the comforting sort of “music” that “crept by” Ferdinand in The Tempest. These aren’t records to think on; Eliot’s typist hasn’t exactly reached for the Stravinsky. She has the CPU of a jukebox, and moves—grooves—accordingly, which is to say automatically. (She might as well be dead.) The episode comes couched in pop comforts like rhyme and meter. It’s as if a crackling gramophone is grinding out some trifle, square in the middle of a collage of classier ruins.

But there must be other responses than the automaton’s available to modern women who prefer not to be mauled by young men carbuncular and who enjoy their gramophones. Eliot’s typist could buck herself up and, instead of merely playing a song, sing one, an original. Let’s call it “Résumé”:

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.

In other words, Eliot’s typist could be more than a nameless typist, more than a type. She could be something other than an extra in an Eisensteinian montage, a model member of the masses, a petal on a wet black bough. She could be allowed a complete thought, instead of just the half. (She could be a complete wit, instead of a half-wit.) In general, she could have more of a mouth on her. She could be Dorothy Parker.

Parker, for her part, could be hard on the singing that makes up this new edition of her Complete Poems, which first appeared in 1999 and, through legal wrangling, has been expanded to include a few more poems. “My verses are no damn good,” she told the Paris Review in 1956:

Let’s face it, honey, my verse is terribly dated—as anything once fashionable is dreadful now. I gave it up, knowing it wasn’t getting any better, but nobody seemed to notice my magnificent gesture.

Parker had a point, but only because by the time she made it—that time of life when an old writer’s thoughts turn to her Paris Review interview—she had enough distance on her younger self to be able to remove the younger self to the wrong side of history. To be sure, the worst of the younger self’s poems (and this is a lot of them) would’ve sounded “terribly dated” to the mature woman who’d committed herself to causes and come to be blacklisted. They confront the contemporary reader first and foremost as firmly end-stopped metrical patterns, which is what formal poems do when we have no great reason to concentrate on their words, when their words have, over time, revealed themselves to be the go-to words of a bygone world: the stock content another era’s professional—an ad man, say—could generate and manipulate at will, in a pinch. Indeed, when reading a stanza of “Hearthside,” for one, it takes an effort not to glaze over and count stresses:

If I seek a lovelier part,
Where I travel goes my heart;
Where I stray my thought must go;
With me wanders my desire.
Best to sit and watch the snow,
Turn the lock, and poke the fire.

In general, Parker came up with no surprising images, similes, or metaphors of her own. The odd telephone makes an appearance and keeps things up to the minute. But for the most part she made do with lads, suns, stars, things, tears, time. The heart is so frequently reached for and handled in Parker’s poems it’s as worn and polished a prop as Yorick’s skull. Eliot wrote that it was the poet’s business “to make poetry out of the unexplored resources of the unpoetical.” Parker worked the exhausted resources of the poetical.

But Parker was wrong to discard her efforts en masse, even if the gesture made for good interview and was, in keeping with her general aesthetic, wickedly economical. (Her first collection of poems was reluctantly retrieved from magazines and titled Enough Rope, which means, of course, the bare minimum of verse required to make a book and hang a poet.) She was wrong to discard her efforts not because she “was her own worst critic,” as the Paris Review put it, but because her best poems are already the best critics of the worst. For instance, the knowing sensibility behind the following stanzas from “One Perfect Rose” has inhaled enough of the bad stuff to be allergic to a florid sign system:

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.

Joan Acocella, writing in the New Yorker, argues that Parker’s ambition is narrow, her mode deflation: Parker pumps up the expectations of readers, and then, with the tack of a final line or stanza—with no tact at all—sticks it to them (the expectations, not the readers; Parker is reader-friendly or, at least, the friend of yours who knows how to needle you). But it can also be said that Parker inflates the deflated; she aerates the often claustrophobic confines of poems (what with their perfect, perfumey roses), letting in oxygen, helium, limousines.

“Light verse precisely lightens,” wrote John Updike, in a piece on the rather more heavy Cantos of Ezra Pound. “It lessens the gravity of its subject.” Parker’s best poems are the lightest, which means the smallest, the ones that, just this side of the aphoristic, have acquired the most buoyancy. (It may even be that Parker’s aphorisms—“Brevity is the soul of lingerie”—are the poems.)

But in her introduction to Complete Poems, the biographer Marion Meade suggests that the Great Depression leavened a light touch for the better:

In [Parker’s] third book of poetry, Death and Taxes, can be noticed a distinct shift in mood, a maturity and reflection, less mockery, fewer knee-jerk responses to people who got under her skin. . . . Instead of Parkerlite, audiences were given sad, solemn lyrics that seemed ripped from the dark reaches of her unconscious.

Death and Taxes certainly contains a few classics: “The Flaw in Paganism,” “Sanctuary,” “Cherry White,” and “Sweet Violets.” But if there’s a mature and reflective Parker, she should take the label “Parkerlite”; we remember the other one, the Parker of the first two collections, Enough Rope (1926) and Sunset Gun (1928), precisely because of the “mockery” and “knee-jerk responses.” Parker got her start pushing product, writing captions for clothes in Vogue in the 1910s; later, as a member of the Algonquin Round Table, she frequented the famous hotel where the various lives of various parties would shore up and try out their wit. One had to be quick with one’s comebacks and stylish about viciousness. In time, Hollywood would require her services on screenplays. Economy, for Parker, wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics, of making sure that every word contributes; it was a matter of economic survival. Like the finest of Updike’s, her poems hold to an archaic idea of accountability to mythic figures: smart general readers who don’t read a lot of poetry and are mostly looking to pass a moment in stylish company. They’re funny, too. Unlike so many contemporary poems—all punch line all the time—Parker’s have a comedian’s sense of structure and timing; the punch-lines, when they come, are as crisp as tapped cymbals (even if the downbeat drummer strikes us as a potential suicide).

Put another way, poems like “One Perfect Rose” want no great gloss. Like the Marianne Moore of the line, “I, too, dislike it,” Parker sides with the morose skeptic, if not philistine, who’s wary of symbolism, of what sneaky things (roses and poems) might really mean. But “One Perfect Rose” is more than metapoetry of a kind that stretches back, past Gertrude Stein, to the Shakespeare of Sonnet 130, and reaches forward to the Andy Warhol of Marilyn Monroe paintings and the mid-century world of advertising; it’s another response to young men carbuncular the world over, with a not-so-subtle subtext: the size of your empty sign matters. Like “Résumé,” like so many others, “One Perfect Rose” proposes wit and pragmatism as a way of life for the modern depressive who might otherwise be tempted to take her life or, worse, make a collage. Indeed, in “A Well-Worn Story,” Parker’s inner-environmentalist worries that she has “spoil[ed] a page with rhymes.” In “Bohemia,” she savages those of us who’ve an installation to ready, an opening night to get ready for, a subscription to the Believer to renew:

Playwrights and poets and such horses’ necks
Start off from anywhere, end up at sex.
Diarists, critics, and similar roe
Never say nothing, and never say no.
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man that solicits insurance!

Perhaps, then, what Parker made, out of the exhausted resources of the poetical, was less poetry than anti-poetry. In doing so, she anticipated the anti-matter of Joycelin Shrager, the late Tom Disch’s parody of a wanting poet. “i don’t think it’s vanity,” writes the parody:

                                     i’m just
a very visual personality type
my eyes are hungry all the time which is why
i’ve been obsessing over the fact
that i can’t see my feet making
a bump in the blanket since they were
amputated victims of mastectomies
      —From “before he killed himself donald”

Shrager reminds us of the lower-case dangers a “visual personality type,” left to her own devices, can get up to.

In addition to Disch, Parker anticipates the tough love of another spiritual heir, the contemporary writer Fran Lebowitz, who gets a laugh by giving an audience the truth in style, in a cascade of clauses: “There are too many books, the books are terrible, and this is because you have been taught to have self-esteem.” Parker, too, is one of the great critics of that transhistorical human spirit that’s always wanting us to read its poems and, after wwii, comes to concentrate itself in college classrooms and comment streams. In “Bohemians: A Hate Song,” she writes, “They are always pulling manuscripts out of their pockets, / And asking you to tell them, honestly—is it too daring?” In a May 1958 piece about Jack Kerouac, for Esquire, Parker remarks on (even as she demonstrates by example) the dangers of too much typing:

Like many a better one before me, I have gone down under the force of numbers, under the books and books and books that keep coming out and coming out and coming out, shoals of them, spates of them, flash floods of them, too blame many books, and no sign of an end. And this at the time of what is recognized as the slack season in the publishing industry!

By “publishing industry,” she means the mid-century businesses that put out too much product and aren’t letting up. But she could just as easily be misunderstood to mean the Twitter feeds of today, or the workshops of Dana Gioia’s gentle ire, or the open mic that comes in for scorn in an episode of Mad Men (“Too much art for me,” says one character), or the hacks of Alexander Pope’s Dunciad, emboldened by the convenience of the latest publishing platform, the printing-press; what worries Parker is the deluge.

But Parker, like Noah, sort of needed the deluge, if only to emphasize her own buoyancy, her being above it all. In fact, alienation is a secret source of pleasure in some of her speakers, setting them apart from their less-joyfully alienated peers—the armored animal of a Marianne Moore poem, say, or the emotionally armored speaker of an Edna St. Vincent Millay sonnet (the one who learns about the death of a loved one from the back of a fellow commuter’s paper but can do little more than compose her face and focus on the subway ads for fur storage, modern life being what it is and all). The second part of Parker’s foray into free verse, “Oh, Look—I Can Do It, Too: Showing That Anyone Can Write Modernist Verse,” parodies the blighted cityscape of the Millay sonnet and something like Eliot’s “Preludes”:

A litter of newspapers
Piled in smothering profusion.
Supplements sprawling shamelessly open,
Flaunting their lurid contents—
“Divorced Seven Times, Will Re-Wed First Wife,”
And, “Favorite’s Account of Escape from the Harem.”
Unopened sheets of “help” advertisements;
Editorials, crumpled in a frenzy of ennui;
Society pages, black with lying photographs.
Endless, beginningless heaps of newspapers. . . .
Outside, a thin gray rain,
Falling, falling hopelessly,
With a dull monotony of meaningless sound,
Like the voice of a minister reading the marriage service.

Perhaps you had to be in the employ of a magazine, as Parker usually was, to make light of the despair that other moderns felt in the presence of a “litter of newspapers,” which could be thought a sign of a robust mass media. But still, even if one had to be alienated, one could at least enjoy oneself. In “Frustration,” a perfectly sane American psycho imagines the “pleasure” of “Speeding bullets through the brains / Of the folk who give me pains.” In “Sanctuary” (a quatrain of folk art so familiar it could be credited to Anonymous), an island of one surveys the countryside:

My land is bare of chattering folk;
   The clouds are low along the ridges,
And sweet’s the air with curly smoke
   From all my burning bridges.

The island of one has none of the Facebook user’s fear of de-friendingand its consequences; she’s cheerful about blowing up connections, blowing social capital. She doesn’t brood in her bedroom, playing Smiths records, like Eliot’s typist. Parker’s speaker, in “Indian Summer,” will “do the things I do; / And if you do not like me so, / To hell, my love, with you!” She finds the grim joy in a nasty business, as most of her peers don’t—save, perhaps, the Virginia Woolf who records of herself, “My real delight in reviewing is to say nasty things.”

Like Disch, like Lebowitz, Parker’s spiritual heirs aren’t merely poets; they’re scrappy professionals, living by their wits and wit in equal measure: the unfashionable sorts of outcasts, the geniuses of the system. I’m put in mind of Cary Grant’s world-weary cat burglar in To Catch a Thief, who boasts to Grace Kelly, with whom he’ll shortly consummate a cool flirtation, that he doesn’t care for “modern poetry.” I’m also put in mind of Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, the secretary-turned-quick-study-turned-copy-writer, who has to hus-tle to get her haiku-sized ad copy into shape, even as she learns her way around a drink cart. (For Peggy—for Parker—the world of work isn’t entirely a wasteland.) Indeed, a Parker poem like “News Item”—“Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses”—could’ve been a caption in Vogue. In any event, it’s as durable and viral as a commercial jingle. I don’t mean the jingle of the serious artist’s scorn; I mean the jingle that should be accorded the respect of a poem because it was produced by what Camille Paglia is right to call “folk artists, anonymous as the artisans of medieval cathedrals.” Parker’s spiritual ancestors, on the other hand, include the Samuel Johnson of the line, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” and the Oscar Wilde of all of the epigrams. She’ll never replace the major poets of her era, which we’re right to take more seriously, even if we wish some of them would lighten up; she’s too busy angling for a laugh and killing. She’s that gramophone, crackling away among the moderns, cutting the discord with a tune, something you can hum.

Originally Published: April 1, 2011


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This prose originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2011


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 Jason  Guriel


Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was the first Canadian to receive the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry magazine. He won Poetry's Editors Prize for Book Reviewing in . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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