Take care to remember the word epigrammatic. It’s one you’ll find associated often with Mrs. Parker’s poetry. An epigram is defined as a witty or pithy comment – in other words, snark – or a poem that embodies such wit.
During her career, Mrs. Parker published three original volumes of poetry: Enough Rope, Sunset Gun, and Death and Taxes. The verses in these books have been collected into various omnibuses since the late 1930s (among them Not So Deep As A Well), and in 2009 a collection of “lost” poems surfaced in the book Not Much Fun. If you can find a copy of Not So Deep As a Well or The Portable Dorothy Parker you’ll have a handy resource for binge poetry-reading, otherwise I’d suggest picking up The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker for a read-along. For the purpose of The Dorothy Parker Project, I’m using a number of books I’ve had in my possession for decades, plus Kindle purchases of more recent editions.
As you read, you’ll find Mrs. Parker touches on set themes in her verse: death, heartbreak, cynicism, melancholy. Look at the titles of her books and note how they convey her mindset: ropes, guns, death. It’s no secret that Mrs. Parker had been suicidal and (likely in her opinion) terrible at succeeding in it. She’d tried taking her life once or twice that we know of, and spent much of her remaining years unhappy and drinking, which slowed her writing significantly.
People might wonder at how somebody blessed with a wicked sense of humor, the early 20th century Queen of Snark, could wish often for death and weave it constantly in her work. To quote Dana Gould, being funny is not the same as being happy. I can never speak to what went on in Mrs. Parker’s head, but we have her poems as clues open to interpretation. Today, we talk about Enough Rope.
Enough Rope was first published in 1926. Marion Meade notes in her biography of Mrs. Parker, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, of the book’s popularity and appeal. It became a bestseller and enjoyed several reprints (remarkable for a volume of poetry at the time) and earned praise from readers and reviewers. This is ostensibly her breakthrough work, one that extended her reach from the Algonquin Round Table into the American lexicon. Perhaps then people mimicked her quips with the same regularity as we quote movie dialogue today.
When you open the book, you realize first thing Mrs. Parker isn’t going to let you slide through the book without feeling her anguish. Enough Rope opens with “Threnody,” which means “lament.” Her heart is “shattered,” and she wants you to know that she’s still alive and “every likely lad in town / gathers up the pieces.” As Mrs. Parker writes it, though, it doesn’t sound like a message of hope, of finding love after a disappointment, but the inevitable setup for another round of misery.
Moving along, one is hard-pressed to find silver linings. Here’s what you’ll find in the first few pages:
“The Small Hours” – The listless speaker bemoans the nights and finds no comfort of the coming sun.
“The False Friends” – Resentment of well-meaning friends who attempt to bring cheer.
“The Trifler” – Heavy flirting with Death, perhaps a reference to a failed suicide attempt in which Death is blamed for its failure.
“A Very Short Song” – Another lament of heartache, also an acknowledgement that she’s as capable of creating it.
“A Well Worn Story” – Love with the wrong person, and the eventual fallout. More than once Mrs. Parker refers to April in her poetry – a month significant as the beginning of spring and renewal and hope, yet she rarely finds it.
“Convalescent” – A resolution to get over lost Love ends with the resignation that she’d willingly take him back regardless of how badly she feels.
“Epitaph” – She speaks of two deaths: the first emotional and the second physical. The “gleaming pain” between my ribs could suggest a broken heart, and the image of lying warm in the earth implies relief and comfort in death.
All together in this one book, you could form the story of a woman weary from worldly experience, pessimistic about true love and wishing for an early end, only to find it so much of a chore that maybe it’s better to let nature take its course and resign yourself to harmful vices while you wait.