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Dorothy Parker and the Art of Light Verse

John Hollander

Say I'm neither brave nor young
Say I woo and coddle care,
Say the devil touched my tongue--
Still you have my heart to wear.

But say my verses do not scan,
And I get me another man!

This is the conclusion of Dorothy Parker's "Fighting Words," first published in a magazine seventy years ago. Her readers then and over a couple of subsequent generations might have overheard in the rhetorical pattern the echo of Leigh Hunt's anthology piece, "Jenny Kiss'd Me" ("Say I'm weary, say I'm sad, / Say that health and wealth have miss'd me, / Say I'm growing old, but add, / Jenny kiss'd me"). More important, they would have understood what it meant generally for verses to scan at all, and particularly why for comic verse metrical perfection was necessary -- although of course in itself insufficient -- for acute wit. Some of the best critics of light verse, like the late Louis Kronenberger and the poet William Harmon, have pointed out that there is more great poetry than good light verse (and one tries to forget how much more very bad poetry there is than either of these). We are today in a literary age of what jazz musicians used to call a tin ear, and there is less light verse written, and less capacity, probably, to appreciate it than ever before. Much that is attempted results in appallingly inept doggerel whose defects seem unnoticed.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) had a fine ear as well as a sharp tongue, and a good sense of timing and what in musical theater is called "build"--the timing and phrasing of a routine to allow a punch line to work. And her best verse is indeed set up for those punch lines. Sassy, tough, sentimental about its own mild ironies and vice versa, her comic verse is most successful in its brevity. She mastered the gag quatrain -- here in "Experience": "Some men never look at you, / Some men fawn and flatter, / Some men break your heart in two, / And that cleans up the matter." Here the "cleans up," instead of "settling" phrased in some other way, also tellingly implies that the matter of the sexes is a dirty business.

Her best writing is epigrammatic. But is all epigram light verse? Is all occasional poetry? Is all satiric verse? Is all comic verse? Light verse comes into existence only at a time when Romantic heaviness has implicitly declared Augustan high-seriousness to be frivolously solemn. For then comes Lord Byron with Beppo, and then Winthrop Mackworth Praed and C. S. Calverley, and a tradition is launched that will go through W. S. Gilbert to Samuel Hoffenstein and Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin and Frank Loesser and . . . . Whereas Alexander Pope in his "I am his Highness' dog at Kew; / Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?" would not have invoked a major generic difference between his epigram's delicately complex gag and the plangent acerbity of his observation about the old women at places like Bath, ("So round and round the ghosts of beauty glide, / And haunt the places where their honour died." We still have a continuing tradition of Martialian or Alexandrian epigram, and I should not call, for example, J. V. Cunningham's "Arms and the man I sing, and sing with joy, / Who was last year all elbows and a boy," or his "Naked I came, naked I leave the scene / And naked was my pastime in between" light verse at all.

In English, it is the verbal trickery, such as unlikely rhyming (preferably polysyllabic -- it's easy to rhyme incongruously if a phrase and a word can rhyme tightly), that light verse flaunts, and the building up toward a pun that can retract the agenda that had led up to it -- the tricks and what they are for and what they show. Also, the dependence on conventions and at best playing only a single trick or so, but seldom involving a deep investigative agenda or what younger academic lit.crit. tends to call "subversion." Light verse can also involve surprise games played with expectations about formal or rhetorical conventions, confirming and overturning these at once. But the games are never played for the imaginative stakes that we feel ride on high poetic seriousness. And true poetry doesn't surprise. It rather (to reverse a distinction drawn by J.L. Austin) astonishes.

At the time she was writing her first published verses, Dorothy Parker worked for a dance studio, playing the piano and occasionally teaching dancing as well. She sold a poem to Frank Crowninshield at Vanity Fair; he helped her get a job first at Vogue, then at Vanity Fair, and she continued to write light verse voluminously during the following decade. But what was her apprenticeship like? From 1915 until 1922 (when the earliest of the poems collected in Enough Rope appeared in periodical form) she was writing a great deal of verse for magazines, most of it uncollected, and in Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker (Scribners, 256 pp., $22.00) Stuart Silverstein, who is working on a history of the Algonquin Round Table, has assembled 122 pieces of verse--not quite a third of her output--that Parker never deemed good enough to get into books.

She was quite right. But from this mass of material there are more than a few giggles to be got, and a good deal of knowledge not just of how much better she got, but in what ways. For example, one of Parker's favorite rhetorical structures is that of the catalogue. Some of her most famous verses, like the "Resumé" (which, given what is now known of her occasional suicide attempts, seems one kind of Galgenhumor rather than another), build through a brief list through a minor joke or two (here, the acutely irrelevant illegality of firearms) to the punch line: "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." (Rather more lengthy is her "Symptom Recital.")

We can see from this collection that she composes these catalogues from the very start. "Invictus" (from 1921) is not a parody of William Henley's famous true grit verses but rather a list of clichés:

"What could be sweeter?" I fondly muse;
    "You said a mouthful," I confess;
Witnesses testify I use
    "Yes, indeedy" in times of stress;
"Oh, it s a great life," I loudly claim --
    "If you don't weaken," I amend;
"I'll tell the world" is my middle name;
    "Well, how's the boy?" I greet a friend ...

and so on. Certainly competent, this would later give rise to Ira Gershwin's "The Babbitt and the Bromide" and, of course, Frank Sullivan's "The Cliché Expert."

Here, for example, is the beginning of one of these early pieces (from 1920), called "With Best Wishes":

Glad Christmas Day once more has come --
    There's little novelty in that.
It's welcomed eagerly by some,
    Which isn't to be marveled at.
Their stockings hold a house and lot
    (I hope you gather what I mean)
A picturesquely furnished yacht,
    A next-year's model limousine,
sable wrap of graceful cut
    A sheaf of cheques for vast amounts;
it's not the thought that matters, but
    The gift which goes with it that counts.

But I'LL get a multitude of seasonable cards,
    A bowl full of lily-bulbs, approaching their decease;
A pair of gilded shoe-trees with appropriate regards,
    And a leather-bound "Evangeline" with colored frontispiece.

There are two more of these pairs of strophes, the only twist in the end coming with the refrain announcing that since "I know the giver's thrill -- for it's / A poor Yule which won't work both ways," her gifts will be of a similar sort.

But compare this with what is basically the same gag, made more compact and pointed, in her famous "One Perfect Rose" from only three years later (it was collected in her first volume, Enough Rope):

A single flow'r he sent me, since we met,
    All tenderly his messenger he chose;
Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet
    One perfect rose ...

and, after one more stanza, this final one:

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.

--Yes, of course; and a one-liner that got neatly expanded (but not like the prolix early one), loading the dice with "flow'r" and the purple verse. But the antepenultimate line is indeed perfect, and one remembers the verse for it. Sometimes these catalogues add up to versified Rochefoucault, but perfectly domesticated and updated or whatever, as in "Unfortunate Coincidence": "By the time you swear you're his, / Shivering and sighing, / And he vows his passion is / Infinite, undying-- / Lady make a note of this: / One of you is lying." Here the third rhyming pair is made by the verse form to feel parallel and an inevitable consequence of the first pair; what she learned, apparently, was when to stop, how not to wear out her epigrammatic welcome.

Among the virtues of Not Much Fun are its complete chronology of all of Parker's verse, including, of course, those published here, although not listing the variant titles from periodical to book form. The sixty-page introduction gives a very good outline of her life, most useful if you have never read either John Keats's biography or the fine book on her--perhaps the most sophisticated discussion of her poetry we have--by the Renaissance scholar Arthur F. Kinney. (I should note that Stuart Silverstein appears to be in error about her having left high school at fourteen: the reader should consult Keats's excellent pages about Miss Dana's School in New Jersey, where the awkward and unhappy Dorothy Rothschild did indeed learn a great deal.) A lot of her best one-liners are constantly being given in footnotes in small type, with the context deftly and briefly reconstructed (for example, it was at a party at Herbert Bayard Swope's grand house in Great Neck--perhaps a model for Jay Gatsby's, it has been surmised--that, observing some guests playing awkwardly with apples in a dishpan and being told they were ducking for apples, came up with her "there, but for a typographical error, is the story of my life"). But a note or two on some of the verses themselves might have been helpful--either to gloss a name as "lost" as the writing itself. The reference to Wallace Reid in "To My Dog"--one--of the better of these early efforts, by the way--begins,

I often wonder why on earth
    You rate yourself so highly;
    A shameless parasite from birth
You've lived the life of Reilly
No claims to fame distinguish you:
    Your talents are not many;
You're constantly unfaithful to
    Your better self--if any.

And it might have been pointed out that, in the gentle sentimental lyric called "Excursion into Assonance," even the author herself is mistaken, for the poem's excursion is into off- or slant-rhymes (sand/end, tap/slip, etc.), which is quite another matter.

One point about glossing is that in light or comic verse an allusion must be caught immediately, and a footnote won't help. When reading major English poetry of the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, for example, if you come across (in post-1950 editions, largely) a gloss on an allusion or an early usage, the information is supplementary but not essential. There'll always be a lot more to go on, and although the supplement may, from the point of view of the deepest interpretation, fundamentally change a "reading," the want of that supplement will in most cases prevent pleasure and profit from accruing from the misreading if so it be. Not so with light verse and its punch lines. Parker's celebrated

Life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea,
And love is a thing that can never go wrong
And I am Marie of Roumania

depends upon the fine-tuning of the resonance of that name. But the public-spirited granddaughter of Queen Victoria who married the king of Roumania and wrote her memoirs could never ring the right bell right away. (Today you have to imagine a name with a contemporary vibrancy, for example, Wealth trickles down more / Than ever before / It's all just fine, and I / Am Princess Di.)

There are also reprinted here eighteen of her so-called Hate Verses, rather prolix literal strings of peeves in a rather inept free verse (whether intended originally to be parodic of serious modernist vers libre, she seems in these to take the mode to heart). Though interesting, they were to me quite disappointing. For example, the beginning of "Relatives" (epigraph: I hate Relatives, / They cramp my style):

There are Aunts.
Even the best of us have them.
They are always dropping in for little visits,
And when you ask them to stay,
They take it seriously.
They never fail to tell you how badly you look;
And they relate little anecdotes
About friends of theirs who went into declines ...

And so on for similar routines on in-laws, nephews, and (joke) husbands. These pieces dilute the force of both her verse and her prose--a lot of her one-liners come from her stories (particularly the fine monologues) and seem to me to lead only to sit-down "comic" writers like Erma Bombeck (not my style). Still, it is instructive to look at these and realize how their very artlessness, contrary to the usual sentimental view, utterly diminishes the feelings they could represent or elicit. And it confirms the knowledgeable view that there are tin ears for free verse as well.

From the verse in Not Much Fun you could not predict that Dorothy Parker might write some excellent literary verse of the sort that approaches real poetry, candid about its minority, but in several cases quite admirable. Her many sonnets were considerably weaker in force than her occasionally still resonant Parnassian lyrics. Behind these lie A. E. Housman--and Housman's diction, interwoven with up-to-the-minute slang phrases, remains there even in the later comic verses as well--and English translations of Heinrich Heine (she had French and apparently quite a bit of school Latin, and she shows a sense of how to pick up and run with a Horatian tag); and even Walter Landor (pace her not-too-funny quatrain disdaining him). A biographer quotes her as saying that, like everybody else at the time she was starting to write verse, "I was following in the footsteps of Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers." Certainly Millay' early, well-known "First Fig" sounds paradigmatic for a lot of Parker's later verse ("My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends / It gives a lovely light!"). It might be added that Parker might more typically observe that her light keeps going out but that she keeps burning the candle anyway.

Among the best of her quatrains, from a group called "Tombstones in Starlight," is "The Actress," which I suppose I would call poetic epigram rather than light verse, despite the punch-line conclusion; the first two lines sound in themselves like well-translated Greek Anthology compliment, and the conclusion doesn't undercut it but in a tender way confirms it--the issue being "immortality" in any case.

Her name, cut clear upon this marble cross,
    Shines, as it shone when she was still on earth;
While tenderly the mild agreeable moss
    Obscures the figures of her date of birth.

And a little poem called "Temps Perdu," after a brief catalogue of sights calling up the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, concludes,

The look of a laurel tree birthed for May
    Or a sycamore bared for a new November
Is as old and as sad as my furtherest day --
    What is it, what is it, I almost remember?

But perhaps the dedicatory poem she wrote for The Portable Dorothy Parker (1944) to her husband, Alan Campbell (she was fifty-one then), reveals with a perfect mixture of honey and salt that, for Renaissance poetic theory, typified lyric and epigram, respectively. It begins, "Soldier, in a curious land / All across the swaying sea / Take her smile and lift her hand -- / Have no guilt of me." As if in answer to a little poem by Richard Lovelace, say, it ends,

Only, for the nights that were,
Soldier, and the dawns that came,
When to sleep you turn to her
Call her by my name.

Reprinted from the Yale Review 85:1 (1997) by permission of the author and Yale Review. Copyright © 1997 by John Hollander.

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