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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Round out National Poetry Month by sharing a table with Dorothy Parker

One of my favorite Jane Austen characters,Anne Elliot from Persuasion,once advised a mournful young man to take a little more prose than poetry in his daily reading,seeing as "it was the misfortune of poetry to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly."

While I quite agree with Anne's assessment,I had to do the reverse,since poetry has been seriously lacking in my literary diet for quite some time now. In looking for a suitable style of verse that would be entertaining and engaging,Dorothy Parker seemed to fit the bill rather smartly.

Parker is not a wholly unfamiliar figure to me,or anyone who enjoys lively wit from women in writing. Her short stories and monologues such as "Big Blonde" and " A Telephone Call" are mainstays of The Portable Dorothy Parker(a new edition of which I recently received as a birthday gift)which does include samples of her poems,most of them being of the short and snappy form for which she became infamous for.

However,I thought it was high time that I should seek out more of her lyrical work and decided to take on a currently compiled collection of her Complete Poems,with an introduction by Marion Meade,the latest scholar of Parker's artistic output. Meade certainly gives a lot of insight into Parker's personal motivations for her life choices as well as her writing,showing us a woman who adored being thought of as clever but resented any attempts to turn her into a one trick pony:

Dorothy Parker was a humorist,first and foremost,but she also used her sharp observatory skills to showcase the pain and regrets of life,particularly in love. Parker had one than one troubled marriage and bad romances on her plate,not to mention a history of depression that lead her to a few suicidal incidents and excessive drinking.

Nonetheless,she did possess a knack for wordplay that rightfully earned Mrs. Parker(as she preferred to known,even after her divorce)a seat at the Algonquin round table with the likes of Robert Benchley,Ring Larder and James Thurber,friends she made via her writings for magazines like Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Parker was also a screenwriter for a time,mostly a contributor and co-author to film scripts,including the 1937 version of A Star is Born that won a Best Original Story Oscar.

She had several poetry collections published in her lifetime which did become bestsellers with such wry titles as Enough Rope,Sunset Guns and Death and Taxes. Despite her success as a poet,Parker felt that she hadn't achieved the true heights of artistic status by not writing a novel.

She tried many times,but never could finish one;it just wasn't her foray but with a generation of contemporaries putting out their version of the Great American Novel,you can see why Dorothy thought she was severely lacking in that department. Her greatest strengths were in creating brief but meaningful moments on page,a talent that looks easier than it actually is.

Her feisty ways and saucy one liners were better appreciated by later generations in more than one media medium. The production company for the popular female friendly show Gilmore Girls was called Dorothy Parker Drank Here for a good reason. While the ladies on that series didn't have as morbid sensibilities as Mrs. Parker,they did share her love of dialogue and amusing verbal skills to off play their anxieties and quirks:

With the horn of plentiful poems that Parker has provided us with,pinning down just one to sum her up is next to impossible. However,I do think that this particular set of verses seems to be equivalent to Jane Austen's line about the "fine bits of ivory" comparison of her own writing:


Little things that no one needs --
Little things to joke about --
Little landscapes, done in beads.
Little morals, woven out,
Little wreaths of gilded grass,
Little brigs of whittled oak
Bottled painfully in glass;
These are made by lonely folk.

Lonely folk have lines of days
Long and faltering and thin;
Therefore--little wax bouquets,
Prayers cut upon a pin,
Little maps of pinkish lands,
Little charts of curly seas,
Little plats of linen strands,
Little verses, such as these.

Lonely she may have been,but Dorothy Parker's influence on women,writing and the art of poetry was certainly not little indeed. Her legacy is far reaching,with many fine folk happy to celebrate her contributions to the advancement of wit and sardonic wisdom to the literary world. While Mrs. Parker certainly would have shrugged off some of the praise heaped upon her by modern day admirers, she also would've been swallowing a smile down with her martini:

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