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On "Unfortunate Coincidence"

Rhonda Pettit

Many of Dorothy Parker's poems are remembered for their cynical assessment of modern romance, and "Unfortunate Coincidence" is no exception. This six-line poem offers a poetic syllogism in which the first two lines state one condition (a woman's passionate declaration of love), the next two lines state a second condition (a man's passionate declaration of love), and the last two lines offer what, for Parker, is the only possible logical conclusion: either the woman or the man "is lying." To read this strategy as simply clever, light-verse composition obscures much of Parker's genius. The poem's rhetorical structure is in keeping with the traditions of satiric and epigrammatic wit found in classical, Renaissance, and eighteenth-century poets. And like all masters of form, Parker's sense seldom occurs without its appropriate sound.

One of the most fascinating and overlooked aspects of this poem concerns its combination of formal verse metrics and everyday speech. Parker's conversational, accessible language at times adheres to a formal metric, and at other times strains against it. The poem's ABABAB rhyme scheme is matched by the regularity of the poem's syllable count. Lines 1, 3, and 5 each have seven syllables, an uneven number of syllables in the uneven-numbered lines. The even-numbered lines -- 2, 4, and 6 -- have an even six syllables per line.

The pattern of heavy stresses, however, is more irregular and, in some cases, depends on how the reader hears and defines the metrical feet in a given line. If we read line 3 ("And he vows his passion is") as opening with an anapest, a move anticipated by the opening anapest in line 1 ("By the time you swear you're his,"), there are three heavy stresses in the line. The conversational nature of the language, however, allows for a heavy stress on "he," giving the line four heavy stresses. Knowing Parker's preference for formal metrics over free verse, and recognizing she was quite accomplished in it, we might consider this disruption a free-verse tension within her formal lyrics. The conversational, less formal language wants to break out of its metrical cage.

In addition to anapests, the poem also uses iambs, trochees, and dactyls. Only one line in the poem consists of one type of foot, and appropriately so. The trochaic "One of you is lying" closes the poem, using a disruptive foot to deliver its disruptive message. Due to their quickness, anapests and dactyls often occur in light verse, the poetic type under which much of Parker's work is categorized. Types aside, the anapest is particularly appropriate to the subject of "Unfortunate Coincidence." As John Frederick Nims points out in Western Wind (3rd ed.), the anapest sound suggests impulsive and capricious behavior, the very behavior that, Parker's poem implies, leads to doomed romance. Similar techniques can be found in her poem "Recurrence," particularly when the poem on the page is read against Parker's read-aloud version (see the audio-tape, An Informal Hour with Dorothy Parker, New York: Westminster Spoken Arts, 1956.)

Another interesting aspect of this poem concerns her line endings; they alternate with masculine (lines 1, 3, 5) and feminine (lines 2, 4, 6) endings. Significantly, the feminine endings consist of emotionally charged words: "sighing", "undying", and "lying." With regard to the masculine endings, the pronoun "his" seems gender-perfect in line 1. Line 3 (see above) ends with the passive verb "is", yet the line is referring to the man's passion. If we ignore the enjambment and read it as a self-standing line, we might understand the man's passion as passive, foreshadowing the poem's conclusion. It also suggests that the man's passivity could transform into his more active departure from the relationship. Line 5, an imperative connoting authority, ends with "this." If my reading seems somewhat essentialist in terms of gender, consider the fact that Parker reiterated the male/active, female/passive dichotomy in other poems, such as "Chant for the Dark Hours," "Men," and "News Item," as well as in stories such as "The Waltz," "The Garter," "A Telephone Call," "Advice to the Little Peyton Girl," and others. This dichotomy provided fertile ground in which to plant the seed of discontent regarding the gender politics of "free love." Parker's implied feminism is one of several political frames through which we can usefully read her work.

"Unfortunate Coincidence" contains the sass and cynicism of modern twentieth-century poetry; it de-romanticizes romance, an aspect of its modernist project. Yet a number of its characteristics -- accessible language, implied concern with human bonding, formal qualities, and instructional impulse -- link it with nineteenth-century American women poets in the sentimental tradition. Like much of Parker's work, this short poem marks the collision of nineteenth- and twentieth-century literary values, while at the same time drawing on even earlier traditions. It explodes the notion that light verse in general, and Parker's poetry in particular, have nothing to tell us about literary modernism and its evolving construction. 

(See Rhonda S. Pettit, A Gendered Collision: Sentimentalism and Modernism in Dorothy Parker's Poetry and Fiction (Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.)

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