General Statements on Parker's Poetry
Arthur F. Kinney
Simply put, I want to argue that what appears monotonal in [Dorothy Parker's] work is actually a compound of confused or complicated voicings; her work is, nearly always, dialogic and polyvocal. It refuses to be complacent, dismissive, or ignorant; it admits complexity and irresolution. Throughout her life, Parker's social disaffection and disenfranchisement -- her material dispossession, her own hereditary disinheritance -- brought to her observations both a passion and a need that turned her understanding into defensive postures, such as cynicism, or into metaphorical directions that subtly underscored what Parker could not admit more openly. I see this polyvocalism in her sharply chiseled poetry that severely and insistently claims its classical and formal roots so as to elevate it, deeply grounded in time and place, out of time and place altogether; others have seen it more quickly in her fiction. . . .
[Kinney then discusses Parker's polyvocalism as it appears in her story "The Lovely Leave," her letters, and her poem "War Song." Of "War Song" he writes:]
How are we to read this obviously compensatory poem? Is it generous or guilt-ridden? Brave or sentimental? Sincere or strategic? Clearly we cannot ever know for certain -- perhaps Parker herself did not know -- but the richness of tone and of possibility makes her work haunting.
These are personal and intimate matters, but they are not small matters. Nothing in Parker ever is, regardless of how it seems. . . .
From Arthur F. Kinney. Dorothy Parker, Revised. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.
The speakers in [Parker's] poems are mainly urban sophisticates, and her pages are fraught with images of isolation, degradation, loneliness, and depression; everything Parker touched is transformed by her narrative idiom. No matter the situation she describes, she involves readers, makes them listen to the peculiarly American and utterly contemporary voices of her speakers and narrators. It is her style, her art, her many-sided humor, her irony, her sarcasm, her tenderness, her pathos that readers pay attention to . . . . Parker's attitude toward human folly was satiric; her poems mock and undermine as they unfold through repetitions that underscore and heighten her satirical intent. By making readers pay attention to who is speaking and what the implications of these messages are, Parker forces reader to read behind and between the lines of her deceptively simple situations and messages in order to appreciate fully and understand her art. . . .
[Parker's] major themes are not only a window in the 1920s and 1930s but also remain universal and timeless in their relevancy to topics of the present day: lack of communication between men and women, disintegration of relationships, jealousy, alcoholism, motherhood, human frailties, inane social conventions, the affectations and hypocrisies of a patriarchal society, women's emotional dependency upon men, the selfishness of the wealthy, and the danger of emptiness in women's lives. The targets of her satire are timeless too: the upper class, the self-pitying, the shallow and boring, the envious, the egotistical and egocentric, the depraved, the bigoted, and the jealous. Her poetic devices are of venerable origins and yet still fresh and vital: satire, irony, pathos, tragedy, paradox, sentiment, repetition, exaggeration, sarcasm, dialogue, monologue, narrative, cliched speech, humor, and scalding, unforgettable wit. The hallmarks of Parker's poems -- sympathy and compassion, compression, impeccable grammar and syntax, outstanding diction, double voices and double consciousness, feminism, criticism and self-criticism, subversion and subtext, reversal, and dissection of social manners -- point not only to the seriousness and quality of Dorothy Parker's work, but also to its importance as timeless social commentary and as insight about women and men.
That Parker was a feminist is also undeniable; her voice is confined for the most part to women and what was important to them, yet her speakers do not talk about the home -- in a time when the home was often their only choice. Parker places women in classic female situations, then subverts them; her satire occurs because we recognize the futility of the situation, not that of the speaker.
From Colleen Breese. Introduction. Complete Poems. By Dorothy Parker. Ed. Colleen Breese. New York: Penguin, 1999.
[Miller applies ideas from Roland Barthes and Jan Montefiore to her reading of Parker's love poetry.]
At the broadest level, Parker undercuts her own ascension to "muse" or loved object through her irony, a stance built into her Round Table imperative to perform as a humorist. But more important, she breaks up the loving dyad of male and female through the implied intervention of her audience, for whom the joke is staged. Thus "triangulated," the lovers lose the psychodynamic logic supporting their lopsided interrelation; humor about love -- not the dramatic irony attending the spectacle of bunglers but the acerbic wit of a sophisticated lover-narrator -- has the power to rupture the magic circle of intersubjectivity by constructing its audience as a complicitous third party to the ridicule of one lover (the man) by the other (the woman).
From Nina Miller. Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York's Literary Women. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
For obvious reasons, Dorothy Parker's poetry has been appreciated for its humor, its modern satirical view toward romantic love and heterosexual relationships. Her work is also associated with a New York style of urban sophistication. Thanks to the recovery and delineation by feminist scholars of writings by women in the nineteenth century, particularly those writings in the sentimental tradition, we can now read Parker's poetry in a much broader literary and cultural context.
Many of Parker's poems use elements found in the sentimental tradition: rhyme and meter, accessible language, familiar content, a desire to instruct, an implicit desire for human bonding, an adherence to feminine propriety, and a retreat from both world and work. Her religious poems and some of her poems about death do not close with the kind of clever epigram for which she is famous. Other poems use concision, suggestion rather than explanation, decadent imagery, and an urbane, sophisticated attitude to pull away from or critique nineteenth-century literary and cultural values. One of her earliest poems, "Any Porch" (1921), illustrates this collision of values in its use of fragmented, disembodied voices contained in rhymed and metered stanzas.
Parker's poetry has been ignored by historians of modernism because of its content, form, and publishing venue (mass circulation magazines and newspapers rather than the literary "little magazines"). She preferred formal verse; the only times she used free verse were to mock the form and in her Hate Songs. Thus, she did not appear to be experimenting with or developing a new form. If we consider, however, that modernism embodies more than just technical experimentation, we can appreciate the collision of values found in Parker's poetry for what they are. Dorothy Parker is an important transitional figure in both modernism and the tradition of women's poetry.
See Rhonda Pettit. A Gendered Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker's Poetry and Fiction. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.
[By 1925, t]he content of [Dorothy Parker's] verse began to change drastically, as she now marched past her readers a procession of macabre images not generally associated with popular humor. Satin gowns turn into shrouds, decomposing corpses clinically observe the activity of worms, the living dead ghoulishly deck themselves with graveyard flowers. There were alarming glimpses, no more than a series of snapshots, of the tragedies that would be recognized by twentieth century women as peculiarly their own: the gut-searing loneliness of the women who have "careers," the women who don't marry, the women who do but divorce; the women deprived of maternal warmth and comfort who are condemned to seek love forever in the barren soil of husbands and children and even animals; women howling primitively for nourishment, flanked on one side by rejecting mothers and on the other by rejecting lovers. Her verse began to acknowledge the timeless subject of female rage.
From Marion Meade. Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? New York: Villard Books, 1987.
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