- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

Edited by Stuart Y. Silverstein
Scribner, $16, 272 pages

If there had been a poet laureate of the United States in her lifetime, it is highly unlikely that Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) would have been appointed to that position. No one would rank her among the major American poets and if there is such a thing as the Great American Poem, she did not write it. Yet it is undeniable that Parker made a unique contribution to the literature of her time and, although she wrote some memorable short stories for the New Yorker, it is for her verse that she is best remembered. A member of the fabled Algonquin Round Table of writers who made such a splash in the Roaring Twenties, she published three collections of poetry between the years 1926 and 1931 and some of what she wrote achieved a kind of iconic status. Who can forget her characteristically mordant and equally detailed dismissal of suicide?

“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”

Now along comes “Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker,” a collection of her less well-known poetry, revised and updated with still more arcana from her oeuvre. It also has a long, detailed and insightful editorial introduction full of information about her life and art. Given the astringent quality of so much of Parker’s verse, it is not surprising to learn that her long life was not a happy one — indeed eponymously not much fun — replete with sad childhood, alcoholism, abortions, suicide attempts and betrayals by friends and lovers. Not everyone liked her and she may well have been her own worst enemy, but when Lillian Hellman is your best friend, who needs enemies? In any case, Parker seems to have been one of those writers capable of using her genuine angst and the painful experiences of her life as that grit so necessary to produce her poetic pearls.

You see in this volume how formally accomplished Parker was as a poet: her sonnets are various in style and show a marked originality more associated with such Modernist masters as W.B. Yeats. And she writes less well-traveled forms like the triolet as well:

It is never the cost of the gift;
It is the thought that I treasure.
Such affections as mine do not shift,
It is never the cost of the gift —
Which is quite an incentive to thrift;
Business must come before pleasure.
It is never the cost of the gift;
It is the thought that I treasure.

It is particularly valuable to have this poem, since it expresses an emotion diametrically opposed to Parker’s much more celebrated and well-known dismissal of the single perfect rose offered up as a gift instead of more extravagant gestures. In its seriousness of tone and general gravity, this triolet has much more in common with such short stories of hers as “Soldiers of the Republic” and “I Live on Your Visits” than with the brittle, sharp-edged verse commonly associated with her.

But you’d never mistake Parker for Pollyanna, even if she is not above assuming that guise in one of her poems. There has been a great deal of poetry written down the centuries about love in all its disguises, but perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that this particular poet might well be the poet laureate of its opposite emotion, hate. One of the most interesting and revealing sections of “Not Much Fun” is a serious of longer poems subtitled “a Hymn of Hate.”

In the hands of a lesser or undiscriminating sensibility, such an enterprise could easily degenerate into a load of rebarbative rubbish, but Parker sweeps so widely in search of apt targets and her zingers are so spot-on in hitting them that hers are a delight. She eviscerates, among others Bohemians and Actors, Women and Men, Bores and Reformers, Parties and Summer Resorts, Husband, Wives, and College Boys. Some of her shots are predictable: “I hate Wives/Too many people have them” or “I hate husbands/They narrow my scope.” Others are sharper-edged: “I hate the Drama/It cuts in on my sleep” or “I hate the Office;/It cuts in on my social life.”

Things get really interesting when Parker comes round to hating such targets as bohemians and slackers. Although she was very much of the left — may have joined the Communist Party, certainly followed their line in the 1930s and ‘40s; left her estate to the NAACP on her death — like most satirists going back at least to Juvenal, the thrust of her work was often conservative. Skewering “the Radicals,/The Table D’Hote Bolsheviki,” she damns them for staginess:

“Their one ambition is to get themselves arrested,/So that they can come out and be Heroes.” And as for her diatribe against slackers, apparently written during World War I when her husband was serving in the armed forces, she wields a white feather with the best of patriots, starting with: “There are the Conscientious Objectors,/They are the real German atrocities,/ and finishing up with a heartfelt : “I wish I were head of the draft board.!”

Parker is never boring and can deliver a surprise when you least expect one. This delightful volume will provide many of these, but perhaps more importantly, it will allow us to discover that there is more to Dorothy Parker as a poet than we previously thought.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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