from "Dorothy Parker and Her Intimate Public" by Nina Miller
what conjunction of subcultural identity, publicity, love discourse, and poetic
conventions did Dorothy Parker generate the singularly popular and critically
acclaimed Parker verse? What cultural and imaginative negotiations allowed her
to make love modern and herself a modern lover? Parker's career in the twenties,
continuous with that of the Algonquin Round Table, was significantly structured
and even constituted by publicity. The genre of poetry, meanwhile, had a complex
relation to modernist culture. To begin with, it was ubiquitous in the new
newspaper "columns," the "little magazines" of the Village
and Harlem, and mass circulation journals of all kinds, from the Ladies'
Home Journal to Vanity Fair. Thus
ephemeral and public, "verse" carried the meaning of cultural currency
and circulation, at the same time that, as "literature," it suggested
the stability of cultural tradition. In its structure, the essence of lyric (at
least since the Romantics) arguably lay in its atemporality, its ability to
clear and fix discrete spaces apart from the historical and discursive flow.
"All lyrics," argues Sharon Cameron in her fine work on Lyric Time, "oppose speech to the action from which it exempts
itself, [and] oppose voice as it rise[s] momentarily from the enthusiasms of
temporal advance to the flow of time that ultimately rushes over and drowns
it." Lyric poems, Cameron says, "slow temporal advance to the
difficult still point of meaning" (25).
lyric potential could be channeled to various ends, as the present work attempts
to demonstrate (compare this chapter especially with chapter 8). Among Parker's
multiple uses for lyric was the disruption of the narrative about herself that
would otherwise have sprung up in the wake of her celebrity (her lyrics' triumph
over the "enslavement to temporal narrative"). While her public image
was obviously critical to her career, its status as specifically modern depended
on staving off the entanglements of socially situated identity. . . .
the frictionless space of lyric poetry, Parker could explore love for its
modern, self-fashioning potentials. Safe from the autobiographical constraints
of narrative, she could fulfill her personal charge as an icon of manifest
modernity and New Womanhood.
course, the atemporal freedom of lyric was at least partly a fiction. Parker was
a great admirer of Edna Millay (newly famous at the start of Parker's career),
of whom she once remarked," Millay did a great deal of harm with her
double-burning candles" (a reference to "First Fig") making
"poetry seem so easy that we could all do it but, of course, we
couldn't." We might as well take this as a judgment on the larger project
of public New Womanhood, for Parker was, indeed, to become a poet of equal
stature, with equal cultural responsibility for the serious business of feminine
transgression and heterosexual reconciliation—though in a sardonic mode which
turned Millay's lyricism on its ear. Parker herself put it more humbly: "I
was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss
Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers."
Embedded within Round Table discourse, such an identification might also have
resonated with the midtown mockery of Village idealism, suggesting the
possibility of a more pointed edge to Parker's emulation. But however variegated
this identification, Parker's choice of a professional path occurred with full
benefit of Millay's warning about public life, that "a person who publishes
a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down [sic]";
she had, moreover, the lesson of Millay's literary imitativeness to signal the
degree of determining force exerted by the poetic tradition. For Parker, a woman
writer attempting to project and sustain a highly public and appropriately
sophisticated identity, lyric love poetry—and, more generally, the traditional
literary role of woman lover—had its own inherent problems, founded as it was
on feminine self-effacement. While Millay drew her New Womanly strategies out of
the literary tradition, Parker mined the possibilities of her public context.
Through figurations and rhetorical modes that incorporated the public into her
poetics, Parker provided her speakers the possibility of self-definition outside
the heterosexual dyad. As we shall see, to the extent that this was a deliberate
gesture toward public identity and speech, it was an identity defined not as
sexual, but civic. . . .
criticism has identified a wealth of women's strategic responses to the gendered
character of the traditional canon, from literary cross-dressing to subversion
of the genres themselves. At the broadest level, Parker undercut her own
ascension to muse or loved object through her irony, a stance built into her
subcultural imperative to perform as a humorist. More important, in sacrificing
the sober intensity of romantic love to humor, she broke up the loving dyad with
the implied intervention of her audience, for whom the jokes were 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 charmed 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).
also refused the passivity and objectification that the love tradition would
assign her at the thematic level of her work, where her historical-discursive
manipulations were most evident and particularized. Her explicit response to the
romantic love tradition often went beyond protest of her designated position as
female within the dyad to rejection of the very form of hermetic
intersubjectivity itself. The profoundly jaundiced notion of love structuring
Modern Love discourse gave Parker license to displace the heterosexual
relationship as the necessary center of her poems and, instead, make the poems'
public the site of her primary psychological investment.
self-declared lesser-little-sister relation to Millay translated quite directly
into a poetry of the antilyric, which evoked key lyric conventions only to
invert them. Intended for public consumption, lyric poetry nevertheless issues
from an intensely private voice traditionally understood as "not heard but
overheard." Parker's most significant manipulation of the lyric was to
foreground the listening audience that was usually suppressed. Her very fame
carried with it the spectral presence of the public which constituted her as a
"personality," while her writing actively transformed the solitary
musings of a speaker addressing only herself or the figure of her lover into
essentially public space and speech.
"Plea," humor constitutes the female speaker's first level of
resistance to her lover's attempt to impose upon her a tyranny of privacy.
Secrets, you said, would hold us two apart;
You'd have me know of you your least transgression
And so the intimate places of your heart:
Kneeling, you bared to me, as in confession.
Softly, you told of loves that went before,—
Of clinging arms, of kisses gladly given;
Luxuriously clean of heart once more,
You rose up, then, and stood before me, shriven.
this first stanza, the speaker mockingly renders her lover's self- indulgence in
the terms of his own self-justification, terms the contemporaneous audience must
recognize as a species of "enlightened" Free Love: the couple are to
have no "secrets" to keep them "apart," anything that would
sustain their separateness being self-evidently a bad thing. But as the poem so
clearly demonstrates, this relation is not one of equality, and modern mutual
honesty appears to be neither actively mutual nor, strictly speaking, honest.
Rather, we see the male lover, under the guise of Free Love intimacy, attempt to
reduce the woman to a function of his own psychic economy, an ego ideal to whom
he can confess himself a sexual adventurer and thus emerge "luxuriously
clean of heart."
speaker is conscious of her lover's instrumental use of her but goes beyond a
mocking tone and the joke she has with her audience at his expense.
When this, my day of happiness, is through,
And love, that bloomed so fair, turns brown and brittle,
There is a thing that I shall ask of you—
I, who have given so much, and asked so little.
Some day, when there's another in my stead;
Again you'll feel the need of absolution,
And you will go to her, and bow your head,
And offer her your past, as contribution.
When with your list of loves you overcome her,
For Heaven's sake, keep this one from her!
Round Table ethos mitigated against anything so humorless as direct protest of
gender oppression, but note how this requisite aloofness dovetails with Parker's
own desideratum for the love relationship. Underlying the ironic depiction of
gross inequality in "Plea" is an almost palpable disgust with the sort
of relationship this modern love affair implies, even in its ideal (that is,
genuinely mutual) form. It is not merely the self-serving use to which it is put
in this instance but the very idea of "the intimate places of [the lover's]
heart" that is held at a critical distance; the speaker's distaste is
clearly and extensively drawn around the idea of intimacy as such.
in terms of the relationship's gender inequality, the speaker's relative
passivity may be seen as a function of her femininity and the exclusion of her
own "contribution" as anything more than confessor. But her silence
may also be deliberate reticence: beyond her marginalization within the
relationship as defined and controlled by her lover, the language of the poem
suggests that, in fact, she imposes her own alternative framework on their
interactions. Stanza one is devoted exclusively to the male lover's construction
of love. The first word, Secrets, deliberately set off by a comma, signals the lover's
self-infatuated exhibition to come. Lines like "Kneeling, you bared to me,
as in confession," and "Luxuriously clean of heart once more"
join images of sensuality and religious asceticism in a way that renders both
faintly obscene. Ironically, this sense carries over to the programmatically
unashamed Free Love paganism underwriting the lover's revelations of
"clinging arms" and "kisses gladly given." The speaker's
repugnance is thus plainly evident from the poem's beginning; when in stanza two
she goes on to speak from within her own, more dignified model of love, it
stands as a reproof to the version that preceded it.
the lover to stand "before [her], shriven," she establishes a loving
arena according to her own terms before making the request with which the poem
culminates. In defiance of her lover's attempts to contain her within his
narcissism, the female speaker chooses to view their relationship in the
discreet and lyrical terms of flower imagery ("love, that bloomed so
fair"), oppositional in its invocation of emphatically traditional rather
than modern love paradigms. Here it becomes apparent that the struggle to set
the terms of love in this poem goes beyond the opposition of romantic
intersubjectivity and its absence in Modern Love. The model the speaker offers
combines the cool cynicism of Modern Love with the traditional lyricism of love
poetry. The essence of this hybrid mode is decorum,
continuous with the drawing room dimension of Round Table identity. As we
have seen, a mannered and proprietary aesthetic functioned for the group as a
whole to establish their modernist "aristocratic" detachment. But for
Parker in particular, decorum provided the foundation for an intrinsically
social alternative to private love.
two of "Plea" highlights the stark difference of the speaker's
assumptions about the status of this affair in her life. The lover uses the
ostensible telos of unbounded and unending mutuality to justify his lurid
self-revelations, a pretext mocked by the very nature of the confessions
themselves. The female speaker, by contrast, augments the dignified distance she
puts between herself and him by assuming, with lyrical calm, the unlamented
finitude of their affair. She makes no pretense of being absorbed with him in
particular but explicitly derives her pleasure from the experience of love
itself. Their affair at its height is her "day
of happiness," and the love that blooms, then wilts, as the metaphor
suggests, has its own objective existence and its own immanent course to run
independently of either of them. The assertion that she has "given so much,
and asked so little" apparently expresses (ironic) feminine self-effacement
but more pointedly functions to emphasize—even to flaunt—her restraint and
self-sufficiency. Her protest to him to, "For Heaven's sake," keep
their affair secret from his next lover, is ostensibly a plea for her own future
privacy, but the force behind the expletive, the force that has been building
steadily throughout the previous stanzas, derives from her disgust with the
absence of privacy in their present interactions. One hears in this woman's
voice the distinctly preromantic echo of Congreve's Millamant, who demanded of
her husband-to-be that they "be very strange [reserved] and well bred: let
us be as strange as if we had been married a great while," she says,
"and as well bred as if we were not married at all."
love, what one Parker poem refers to as the "mist of a mutual dream,"
places its practitioners in an unbounded relation to each other while
sequestering them away from the emotional reach of the ordinary world. But
Parker's writing works actively toward a more viable sexual-literary praxis
through her characteristic bitterness and the theme of an endless series of
doomed relationships. Thus surrounded by the apparatus of love and men, the
Parker persona remains legitimately within the sphere of "women's
concerns," and she addresses her audience unquestionably as a woman. But by
virtue of her amorous "failures," she is free from the all-consuming
rapture that would bar her access to the world (though granting her the
"success" of submersion in a single adored man). With love established
as more or less a dead end, Parker's poems channel their energy toward the more
interesting task of elaborating a life in public.
opposition of isolation in romance versus community in the world structures the
poem titled, significantly, "Now at Liberty."
Little white love, your way you've taken;
Now I am left alone, alone.
Little white love, my heart's forsaken.
(Whom shall I get by telephone?)
Well do I know there's no returning;
Once you go out, it's done, it's done.
All of my days are gray with yearning.
(Nevertheless, a girl needs fun.)
Little white love, perplexed and weary,
Sadly your banner fluttered down.
Sullen the days, and dreary, dreary.
(Which of the boys is still in town?)
Radiant and sure, you came a-flying;
Puzzled, you left on lagging feet.
Slow in my breast, my heart is dying.
(Nevertheless, a girl must eat.)
Little white love, I hailed you gladly;
Now I must wave you out of sight.
Ah, but you used me badly, badly.
(Who'd like to take me out to-night?)
All of the blundering words I've spoken,
Little white love, forgive, forgive.
Once you went out, my heart fell, broken.
(Nevertheless, a girl must live.)
her characteristic use of a double voice, one ostensibly straightforward, the
other an aside to the audience, Parker opposes affected lyricism to urbane
sophistication. The first is the realm of love, and its most striking features
are its relative atemporality and the absence of an actual lover. Love, it
seems, is not an event or even a relation with another human being, but a
solitary state of being. It is, moreover, the realm of poetry, specifically,
women's love poetry.
course, the asides are no less in the poem and even take their rhymes from the
lyric lines, underscoring their status as an alternate register of the same
voice. But if the love lines attend to the state of the speaker's womanly soul,
the urbane lines are focused on "tonight"'s very material
"fun." The love poem (and, by implication, the love) is oppressive and
the speaker is palpably relieved to be out of it, but there is a sense in which
it is the necessary precursor to "liberty." For the Parker persona
generally, license to flout the normative structure of female sentiment comes
from the well-demonstrated way in which the world of romance has failed her.
Justification for her rebelliousness comes first of all from the fact that she
is a wronged woman. But she seeks more from her audience than tolerance; she
wants them to claim her as their own, just as she, implicitly, claims them. The
public figuration that begins as the enabling condition for Parker's lyric
heterosexuality quickly becomes a charged and overdetermined affective site in
its own right.
the abstractly democratic sense of (consumer) identification with her
middle-brow reader that we saw evident in "The Far-Sighted Muse"
(chapter 4), Parker shares in what Casey Nelson Blake has identified as a
pervasive modernist attraction toward communitarian values. In his study of the
influential cultural critics known as the "Young Americans"—Randolph
Bourne, Van Wyck Brooks, Waldo Frank, and Lewis Mumford— Blake finds the
formative influence of Deweyan pragmatism and republicanism more generally in
their "insist[ence] that the search for self-fulfillment was a search for
communities that engaged the self in the language and civic association of a
democratic culture." This communitarian ethos, disseminated through New
York City journals like Seven Arts, contributed
powerfully to the broader intellectual milieu in which popular modernism was
nested. And indeed, pragmatist communitarianism had much to offer a public woman
love poet seeking a praxis on her own terms: a shift from metaphysical to
"consensual reasoning" and "collective inquiry" for the
basis of moral truth (about love, for example) (88), as well as the achievement
of self through cultural engagement, including equal access to intellectual and
artistic resources (despite the femininity that rendered one otherwise
"uncivil") (87). Especially significant were the specific advances to
Pragmatism promulgated by these contemporaries of Parker: critical of Dewey's
Anglo- Saxon elitism, they saw "ethnic communities [as] anticipat[ing] a
new center to American culture, one in which traditional bonds of shared
experience reinforced modern ones of rational inquiry" (117). As Blake
summarizes it, "here was a community that Americans could rationally
shape and also love, a form of experience that engaged their capacities as
moderns while fulfilling the functions of tradition" (118; my italics).
Significantly, this combination is bound up with cosmopolitanism
(117), a sensibility encompassing the aesthetic of sophistication. The
crucial sense of the modern ideal as underwritten by ethnic social dynamics maps
suggestively onto the public imagined by Parker's poems, which invoke
middle-brow modernity even as they gesture toward the more concrete yet spectral
public of ethnic/Jewish New York, somewhere beneath Fourteenth Street but out of
sight of midtown. As an imagined Other projected from her writing, this
palimpsestic public, a modern-ethnic convergence, gives Parker back a self that
is easily larger than "woman lover."
dynamics of "Rainy Night" may stand as an example. Ostensibly about
love, "Rainy Night" conveys the sense of a young adventurer soliciting
the indulgence of her protectors. "Rainy Night" seems at first to
reverse the valuations of "Now at Liberty": of the two opposing realms
the poem evokes, it is the mythic, "poetic" one that is favored. The
speaker of "Rainy Night" is poised between the dead and the living.
Ghosts of all my lovely sins,
Who attend too well my pillow,
Gay the wanton rain begins;
Hide the limp and tearful willow,
Turn aside your eyes and ears,
Trail away your robes of sorrow.
You shall have my further years,—
You shall walk with me tomorrow.
I am sister to the rain;
Fey and sudden and unholy,
Petulant at the windowpane,
Quickly lost, remembered slowly.
I have lived with shades, a shade;
I am hung with graveyard flowers.
Let me be to-night arrayed
In the silver of the showers.
Every fragile thing shall rust;
When another April passes
I may be a furry dust,
Sifting through the brittle grasses.
All sweet sins shall be forgot
Who will live to tell their siring?
Hear me now, nor let me rot
Wistful still, and still aspiring.
Ghosts of dear temptations, heed;
I am frail, be you forgiving.
See you not that I have need
To be living with the living?
Sail, to-night, the Styx's breast;
Glide among the dim processions
Of the exquisite unblest
Spirits of my shared transgressions.
Roam with young Persephone,
Plucking poppies for your slumber . . .
With the morrow, there shall be
One more wraith among your number.
a general way, the same opposition that held for "Now at Liberty"
applies here: the realm of myth and classical allusion (presumably the proper
realm for the woman poet) and the world of "fun," specifically, the
sexual freedom of the New Woman. But here in "Rainy Night," the
speaker's consistent use of lyrical poetic diction greatly blurs the opposition,
burying the New Woman so starkly present in "Now at Liberty" behind a
properly romantic (even gothic) poetess until the final lines, when her true
worldly intentions and character are revealed to humorous effect. Against the
force of her New Womanly exploits, the speaker's lyrical expression demonstrates
to her well-intentioned "ghosts" her solidarity with them, as well as
her worthiness of their protective concern.
however instrumental her lyricism appears to be, the world of the ghosts and
poetry actually constitute the site of the speaker's greatest rhetorical
investment. Though we infer, reading backward from the last lines, that the
speaker's immediate plan is to meet a lover, the only image she counterposes to
the ghostly world she must first escape is that of the rain; like the realm of
love in "Liberty," this one is described as effectively solitary. And
again, typically, what remains from past exploits is her experience of her
"lovely sins" rather than the memory of any significant Other.
fact, the loveliness of her sins, once they have been immortalized as such,
presents a significant contrast to the crude materiality of the actual life of
the body insofar as it even appears in the poem. Given the speaker's telos, one
might expect her to oppose sensuality to etherealized love, yet she figures
death rather than sex and employs jarringly unaesthetic language to do so. Much
of the effect derives from her positioning of soothingly poetic words just
before the shockingly ugly ones: as a "fragile thing," her body shall
"rust" (1.17); "When another April passes / [she]
may be a furry dust, / Sifting
through the brittle grasses" (1.18-20); and finally, the starkest contrast,
"nor let me rot," embedded in a sibilant stanza of "sweet
sins;" "siring," "Wistful still, and still aspiring"
(1.21-24). This explicitly gruesome treatment of death is typical for Parker.
One of its functions is to permit her to exclude sex from her treatment of love
and thereby maintain the essential effect of decorum and measured distance, at
the same time that the details of rot and decay allow her to be more shockingly
physical than she would be permitted, were she, in fact, describing sex. For the
point is not to be daring and titillating; it is to deflate the romance of
experience—sex or its degraded form, death—is compared in "Rainy
Night" to the community of ghosts and poetry and found to be horrifying. As
the speaker suggests, the "ghosts of all [her] lovely sins" are the
narrativizations of her experience. As a collective figure, they embody both the
telling and the audience who realize the telling, making it a heard and
remembered thing. Parker's literary praxis thus participates in the "native
(New York) modernist" ideal of the "beloved community," which
"could only be realized . . . in a society that returned aesthetic
experience to the center of everyday life" (3). Parker's community
is—almost by definition—quintessentially modern, but a sense of perceived
public vulnerability is evident in the way her poems supplement the elective
membership in modern "America" with the security of heredity rights to
what is, in fact, an accomplished "small-scale
communit[y] knit together by shared cultural traditions, mutual aid, and a sense
of the common good" (3). In "Rainy Night," then, the process of
aesthetic work embedded within the text brings the woman lover out of solitude
and effacement and into community and power, as a loved charge of the culture. Poetry is community and power, whereas a love affair is, in the best of
circumstances, only a love affair.
principal difference between "Now at Liberty" and "Rainy
Night" is that the poems appear to value opposite worlds. In fact, both
speakers actively seek community, wherever it may be. In "Liberty,"
the community is split between the modern life of the New Woman thematized
within the poem and the poem's audience, whom the speaker cajoles with apologies
("Nevertheless, a girl must eat") and with appeals to their common
modernness in rejecting the stifling world of the "poetic" woman. The
audience of "Rainy Night" is figured within the poem itself as the
ghosts who tend to the speaker and her immortality, realizing her personal
experience into social space. But the plea she levels at them is of the same
order as that of her sister in "Liberty": she wants consent and
approval for her sexual freedom as a New Woman.
sense of imperative raises the suggestion of ambivalence on the part of the
speaker in relation to her audience, however much she may value them. In
"Rainy Night," the ghosts are "dear" and "sweet"
but they also "attend too well [her] pillow." They must be persuaded
to "turn aside [their] ears and eyes" in order that the speaker may
fulfill her "need" to spend time with her own kind, whatever the
risks. They are, in short, like cultural elders, and the speaker, like the
modern American child over whom they keep a solicitous watch. In fact, Parker's
claim to the dignity of a heroine striking out before a communal audience of
supporters often collapses into the more confining family drama of a child
reined in by her parents. Relational models, it would seem, present a slippery
mix of possibilities. Modern Love, for instance, may not worship the male or
marriage, but neither does it offer much in the way of positive alternatives to
the romantic love it critiques. Its vision of heterosexual relations is static
and circular; a writer who would make interventions in this vision—even (or
especially) the intervention of speaking through a female persona that is fluid
and independent—must do so with reference to alternative genres of love as
well as literature. In this light, romantic love, whatever its problems,
supplies the dignity of an elevated context for reception of the poetic work and
an ideal of love; ironically, it also establishes an interiority for the woman
speaker. That Parker works assiduously to undercut these characteristics does
not detract from their importance as a framework to her poems. Out of the matrix
of these models, Parker finally turns outward to her audience, constituting
herself in relation to an Other with whom she may be a fellow subject of a
common culture. While this dynamic turns out to have a distinctly infantilizing
potential, it holds out the hope of a new ground for female identity-and a place
in the interesting world.
another level, the sense of confidence and familiarity with which Parker
approaches her audience may be explained by her experience of public life in the
Round Table. New York writers in general may have had a justifiable (if
tautological) sense of identification with the New York culture of which they
were the primary producers and promoters. The cultural power of New York
(particularly in the eyes of New Yorkers) and the concomitant presumption of an
identifiable New York mind-set may well have contributed to Parker's sense that
when she spoke publicly she was largely received with comprehension and
sympathy. Some popular modernist writers invoked an opposition between New York
and provincial culture, either explicitly or through a self-consciously madcap
or erudite style (with the sense that they were eluding their audience). Parker
was among those who consistently assumed the worthiness of even those readers
beyond the borders of Manhattan. This assumption was not simply generosity on
her part but an index of the centrality of her imagined audience to her work,
the adequacy of whom was essential for the investment she made in them. The
Parker public could present an alternative to the heterosexual dynamic of
domination and submission only if it was comprised of her equals.
imagining this public for herself, Parker drew on various imaginary relations,
as we have seen, but whatever its shifting dimensions, it proceeded from an
ideal of cultural consensus: a higher court of cultural authority to which a
woman love poet could appeal the injustice of her lot as lover. The poem
"Folk Tune" explicitly asserts the worth of consensual culture over a
privatized ethos, and in those terms. Typically for Parker's work, it is
structured as a single extended setup for a final punchline. For two stanzas,
the speaker lays out objective criteria by which her addressee must be judged
unworthy as a lover. We are to recognize this as a rational argument with no
ultimate force in what we know to be a matter of the heart; consequently, we are
fully prepared for a conclusion based on what is ostensibly the radically
different ground of feelings.
Other lads, their ways are daring:
Other lads, they're not afraid;
Other lads, they show they're caring;
Other lads—they know a maid.
Wiser Jock than ever you were,
Will's with gayer spirit blest,
Robin's kindlier and truer,—
Why should I love you the best?
Other lads, their eyes are bolder.
Young they are, and strong and slim,
Ned is straight and broad of shoulder,
Donald has a way with him.
David stands a head above you,
Dick's as brave as Lancelot,—
Why, ah why, then, should I love You?
Naturally, I do not.
movement of this poem—the force that leads us to expect a conclusion that
flies in the face of all reason—depends on the conventional assumption that
object choice in love is inexplicable or, at least, highly idiosyncratic. This
expectation is, of course, humorously subverted, and it is easy enough to see
the reversal in "Naturally, I do not" as a surprise about the
character of the speaker. She turns out to be not a "genuine" lover at
all but a cold- hearted cynic.
alternative reading I would propose takes the concluding line and—rather than
deflecting its import onto a revelation about the speaker—turns it back on her
utterance to overturn the model of love it invokes. Love choice, the poem
suggests, does in fact proceed out of a kind of rational deliberation; more
accurately, it follows from culturally agreed-upon standards. Here is where the
title, "Folk Tune," reveals its aptness to the poem beyond a certain
quaintness of diction. If we take the final line to be continuous with what
precedes it (rather than an ironic reversal), the poem presents a logic for love
based on common consensual wisdom. Love alliance is forged according to the
standards and blessings of the "folk," not as a private expression of
individual taste. In addressing herself to the potential lover—seemingly
appealing to what would be their shared arena of private values—the speaker's
ultimate rejection of him on grounds of his objectively verifiable shortcomings
must be seen as the rejection of the intersubjective ethos itself. The
distinction between a consensual culture of "folk" and an impersonal
society within which couples take private refuge suggests the speaker's positive
motivation for rejecting her would-be lover. More than just the expression of
hardened modern femininity , the poem's eschewal of the privatized world of this
love relationship gains the speaker access to a broader community of cultural
common ground as well as affective investment. Still a lover, yet allied with
this broader community, the Parker persona could deploy its terms within the
romantic context to her own advantage, even circumventing her own gendered fate.
A stark example is "Finis."
Now it's over, and now it's done;
Why does everything look the same?
Just as bright, the unheeding sun,—
Can't it see that the parting came?
People hurry and work and swear ,
Laugh and grumble and die and wed,
Ponder what they will eat and wear,—
Don't they know that our love is dead?
Just as busy, the crowded street;
Cars and wagons go rolling on,
Children chuckle, and lovers meet,—
Don't they know that our love is gone?
No one pauses to pay a tear;
None walks slow, for the love that's through,—
I might mention, my recent dear,
I've reverted to normal, too.
speaker lures her lover into contemplation of the opposition between the
everyday social world and their private universe—more specifically, into a
vision of her own lonely vigil in the closed space that they no longer share.
But having spent two stanzas reestablishing their mutuality, she effectively
abandons him to uphold it himself—the fate that was to have been
"rightfully" hers, as the woman in the dyad. Simultaneously, she
reveals that she has all along been speaking from the other side of the
dichotomy invoked by her words; she is among the free social, beings who profane
their lost love. Conventionally, the love poem is the "unconscious"
display of private values for a public audience with worldly values. The
ultimate betrayal is the breach of this divide; by figuring her audience within
the poem (as the "people"), Parker provides her speaker the structure
within which to commit this treason. Her betrayal is worse than the lover's
betrayal of infidelity; it is the nonlover's betrayal of being
privatized intimacy and its dangers for her as a woman, Parker adopts an
antiromantic model of love governed by decorum and propriety. As I have argued,
the psychodynamic effect of such love is to infuse a certain construction of the
social field with the erotic investment that would otherwise be fixed in a
single defined locus, the heterosexual male Other. Not coincidentally, this
model of love turns out to be consistent with the drawing room aesthetic
dominant in the culture of sophistication generally and the Round Table in
particular. "They Part" uses an arch and mannered voice to directly
counterpose decorum with the emotional excesses of romantic love.
And if, my friend, you'd have it end,
There's naught to hear or tell.
But need you try to black my eye
In wishing me farewell?
Though I admit an edged wit
In woe is warranted,
May I be frank? . . . Such words as "------- "
Are better left unsaid.
There's rosemary for you and me;
But is it usual, dear,
To hire a man, and fill a van
By way of souvenir?
"Plea" depicts the lover's lack of taste as a programmatic modernness,
the lover's behavior in "They Part" appears at first as a mere lapse
in decorum without the justification of any social code, however misguided. In
the world of this poem, the only protocol for love seems to be that set forth by
the speaker. The poem is structured so that each of the three stanzas begins
with a detail of amorous etiquette whose subtlety (the second half of the stanza
reveals) is completely lost on the lover-addressee. The values that structure
normative love in "They Part" are restraint, both thematized and
enacted by the speaker, and tradition, as evidenced by the folkloric symbol of
rosemary for remembrance.
behavior of the lover, however, though seemingly shown merely for its vulgarity,
does in fact emanate from an opposing model—that of romantic love—in which
passion drives the lover to the behavioral excesses that are the testament to
its authenticity. The quality of the lover's feeling is conventionally gauged
precisely by the degree to which it impedes his ability to adhere to social
codes of behavior; in the long shadow cast by Young
Werther, social propriety and love are seen to be mutually contradictory.
From the speaker's perspective, clearly the reverse is true. Love is to be
enacted within the matrix of the social; protocol and the tropes of consensual
culture are of paramount importance. "They Part" reverses the notion
of "falling in love" as an escape into hermetic intersubjectivity.
Building a notion of love around decorum and propriety means turning it into a
publicly known and shared field of behaviors and roles into which lovers can
then—freely and independently—interpolate themselves.
Parker's "Threnody" foregrounds the social character of love in order to overturn the tragedy of the bereft woman. A lament, the poem is constructed of tropes of romantic suffering but deployed in such a way as to dispel the profound isolation in which these tropes conventionally fix the mourning female lover.
Lilacs blossom just as sweet
Now my heart is shattered.
If I bowled it down the street,
Who's to say it mattered?
If there's one that rode away
What would I be missing?
Lips that taste of tears, they say,
Are the best for kissing.
Eyes that watch the morning star
Seem a little brighter;
Arms held out to darkness are
Shall I bar the strolling guest,
Bind my brow with willow,
When, they say, the empty breast
Is the softer pillow?
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.
invoking the full weight of the pitiable romantic tragedy in a succinctly
conventional opening, the speaker takes up her own sacred lover's
"heart" and commits a double outrage upon it, literalizing the
metaphor to mere object, then "bowl[ing]" it in vulgar denial of its
preciousness. The deflation complete, she is ready to assess her more readily
is traditionally repressed in the lyric, the specularization of the grieving
woman as an erotic object, is here foregrounded and put to practical good use.
The intrinsic value of romantic suffering, the poem suggests, is nil, but there
is significant sexual capital in inhabiting the image. Adherence to the role of
tragic woman in all its proper particulars—white arms, bright eyes, and so
on—assures her the ultimate benefits of the social contract it supports. In
the same way, the metaphor of the tragic heart provides its own solution: as the
bereft and brittle unitary heart shatters into a liberatory multiplicity, the
speaker's erotic investment is freed from the doomed dyad of self and (absent)
Other and goes out to multiple sites of desire, to "every likely lad in
town." In this instance, Parker's redefined heterosexuality and her
emotionally enlisted public converge to heightened effect. To an extraordinary
degree, the publicness of "Threnody" provides Parker with the utopian
relation of self to a cathected social body and a field of conventional tropes
in which to construct and manipulate this relation.
Yet many of Parker's poems express significant anxiety over the management of such complex publicity. "Braggart" contrasts two models of inhabiting a public persona and public space in order to suggest both the supreme value of community and its attendant dangers.
The days will rally, wreathing
Their crazy tarantelle;
And you must go on breathing,
But I'll be safe in hell.
Like January weather,
The years will bite and smart,
And pull your bones together
To wrap your chattering heart.
The pretty stuff you're made of
Will crack and crease and dry.
The thing you are afraid of
Will look from every eye.
You will go faltering after
The bright, imperious line,
And split your throat on laughter,
And burn your eyes with brine.
You will be frail and musty
With peering, furtive head,
Whilst I am young and lusty
Among the roaring dead.
speaker taunts her (ambiguously gendered) addressee with the dismal details of
her or his future life, gloating over her own escape into a quite different
fate. The contrast of their respective worlds carries with it certain
expectations. We are prepared for "hell" to be the atemporal
antithesis of the relentlessly time-driven "life"; more specifically,
we are prepared for hell to parallel that truly abstracted alterworld, heaven.
Knowing that the salient point of her association with hell is that she is
"bad" rather than "good," we are likely to overlook its
while this braggart's reversal of values is shocking and iconoclastic in typical
Parker fashion, it introduces complications beyond those suggested by a mere
inversion. The addressee will suffer the physical ravages of old age, and yet
the speaker, presumably dead, has not herself been released from her body. She
is in hell, a place whose whole purpose depends on the continued embodiment (as
capacity for suffering) of its subjects. Yet from the three lines of description
the poem offers, we learn that hell provides the speaker with safety, youth,
"lust[iness]," and—most important—company. Having surprised us
first with an embodied alternative to life, the poem goes on to surprise us with
the physical comforts of hell.
the underplayed embodiment of the dead speaker is purposefully overshadowed by
that of the live addressee, whose body is a source of pure agony. In the first
two stanzas of this extended prediction (or curse), the addressee undergoes the
disorientation and pain of aging, substantial enough in itself. But stanza three
marks a crucial shift away from the subjective to an even more horrifying
dimension of the process: as the surface of the body "crack[s] and crease[s]
and dr[ies]," it becomes an increasingly opaque boundary dividing the
person within the once "pretty Stuff" from"— the "every
eye" without. By the final stanza, the addressee has been reduced to a
"peering, furtive" relation to the world, embodiment having
finally—and paradoxically—given way to invisibility. The still-young
speaker, meanwhile, belongs unproblematically to a powerful community.
"Braggart," both alienation and community are founded on embodiment;
if the body has the power to tragically isolate, it is also the only means to
connectedness. Which it will be is a matter of control, specifically, management
of one's public persona. The woman who holds to a conventional image of
femininity finds herself at the mercy of publicity's "crazy tarantelle."
Acceptable while she is able to conform, she must be put out of sight as soon
she shows signs of losing the hypostatized youth which is the essence of her
alternative. represented by the poem's speaker is to refuse the embodiment of
feminine perfection and, instead, go to hell-and by her own volition. This takes
two forms for the speaker: she positions herself as a "bad girl," and
she constructs a community and a relation to that community which is not in any
way subject to living time. Typical for Parker's use of the bad girl persona,
the "lusty" speaker of "Braggart" functions to elicit from
her audience the protectiveness and "safe[ty]" that the "roaring
dead" provide within the poem. The community that grants her the kind of
seemingly unmediated connectedness suggested here is precisely the one this
chapter has attempted to describe: an imaginary relation of self and other
staged across the public space of a poem. Yet, though this relationship often
seems to transcend embodiment, the presenting problem of the
"braggart" is the effect of aging on her public identity, and her
solution is to "die" into permanent youth. While she may be able to
negotiate a femininity that circumvents the imperative for youth and beauty, her
identification with her audience as she has imagined it depends on her own
personification of the New York culture of sophistication, a culture defined by
youth and modernity. The loss of either quality casts her irrevocably adrift.
From this perspective, the relationship Parker has fashioned as an alternative
to the heterosexual dyad presents her, ironically, with the same criterion for
For Parker as a writerly persona, embodiment proves to be an inescapable and peculiarly feminine component of public identity, just as love itself proves to be her only means of entry into public speech. "A Well-Worn Story" stands as a kind of allegory of ambivalence for both these moments in Parker's literary practice—an ambivalence unrelieved by humor .
In April, in April,
My one love came along,
And I ran the slope of my high hill
To follow a thread of song.
His eyes were hard as p[or]phyry
With looking on cruel lands;
His voice went slipping over me
Like terrible silver hands.
Together we trod the secret lane
And walked the muttering town.
I wore my heart like a wet, red stain
On the breast of a velvet gown.
In April, in April,
My love went whistling by,
And I stumbled here to my high hill
Along the way of a lie.
Now what should I do in this place
But sit and count the chimes,
And splash cold water on my face
And spoil a page with rhymes?
intersection of love and publicity structuring this narrative has an implicitly
feudal cast in the proprietary stance the lover takes toward the speaker—his
silver-handed possession of her like his visual possession of "cruel
lands." This context accounts for the nature of their peculiarly joyless
love affair. The single stanza describing it is concerned exclusively with the
relationship between the lovers and their public, the town. The lane which they
"trod" was secret, apparently the more oppressive for that; the town
they walked was "muttering."
if the public and even the male lover have the luxury of maintaining privacy
within their ritual communication, the female speaker is bound by her position
to total self-revelation. Where she had had freedom and privacy on her
"high hill," in the town she must provide visible proof of her
worthiness: a "wet, red stain" of hymenal blood testifying to her
virginity, to her possession by this man, or even to her repentance, a la Hester
Prynne. Typically for Parker, this image bypasses sex itself for a shockingly
anti- romantic physicality. Wearing one's heart on one's sleeve, thus violently
literalized, even suggests the equation of falling in love with being slain. But
beyond these narratively motivated stains, the singular obligation to bear a
"wet, red" brand suggests the extranarrative expression of femaleness
per se, menstrual blood. Where the town and the male lover mutter, sing, and
chime, the woman's expressions are all graphic. In the same way that, as a
lover, she wears a stain on her gown, she later "spoils a page with
rhymes" after being spurned. The equation renders her love poetry as
involuntary feminine revelation before a public; at the same time, the poem's
feudal resonances suggest that such revelation is an obligation if a royal—or
celebrity—woman is to find acceptance among her followers.
Of Parker's various responses to public embodiment, the most spectacular are undoubtedly her many death poems—poems of wry suicide, rotting corpses, and grotesque visitations. Most of her books are titled with an eye toward cultivating this association with the macabre: Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928), Death and Taxes (1931), and Here Lies (1939). Biographers have attributed this element in Parker's writing to a morbid personal obsession related directly to Parker's several real-life suicide attempts. Yet at least as salient for our purposes is the way in which the trope of the dead or doomed body becomes a carnivalesque flouting of the sexualized body that public visibility (in the press or in the street) would impose on a woman. Parker did not just write the occasional morbid lyric; she let it be known that she subscribed to mortuary science trade journals and wore tuberose perfume, the scent favored by morticians in what Parker delightedly thought of as their grisly ministerings. As in her unrelenting focus on love, Parker took the womanly constraint of embodiment for granted—and used it directly to forge a literary identity. To varying degrees of success, Parker's work managed a central contradiction: that of speaking to a public and appearing as a woman. More than simply releasing her from heterosexual claustrophobia, Parker's "public love" offered her female citizenship as a horizon of possibility—rather than as a contradiction in terms.
Excerpted from a longer essay in Making Love Modern: The Intimate Public Worlds of New York's Literary Women. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Oxford UP.
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