Published: Apr 22, 2010
Category: Poetry 
She was a Rothschild --- just not a Rothschild with any link to the rich Rothschilds.
Her mother died a month before her fifth birthday, her stepmother died when she was nine, her father died when she was 20.
Born lucky, you might say.
It should be no surprise that Dorothy Parker had a close relationship with alcohol (great quantities, taken in small sips, so she was always drinking but never completely smashed). Or that she had bad luck in love (two husbands committed suicide). Or that she'd fail at suicide on four separate occasions (once she slashed her wrists, but only after ordering dinner to be delivered, thus guaranteeing that she'd be found alive).
Dorothy Parker was one of the most celebrated writers of her time, but she's much better remembered for her big mouth. Day after day, she sat with America's greatest wits at the Round Table in the bar of New York's Algonquin Hotel and quietly devastated the all-male group with her one-liners. She was as much a symbol of the 1920s as the flapper, the flivver and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Or so the legend has it.
The fact is, Dorothy Parker had no trust fund, no wealthy husband. She was a working writer. And much of her work involved --- try imagining a career like this now --- poetry. She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair in 1915 for $12, a tidy sum back then. And she wrote about 330 more over thirty years; that's a poem every other week.
She downplayed her poetry. She said she wrote “verses” --- not poems. And they weren't, she noted, original: “I was following in the exquisite footsteps of Miss Edna St. Vincent Millay, unhappily in my own horrible sneakers."
Her poetry was collected at the peak of her fame. It has since languished. A decade ago, Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker  appeared. As with many things Parker, don't believe the title.
Is Parker a great poet? By no means. But she was one of the first American women to speak her mind --- her smart, contrarian, troubled mind --- openly on the page, and that gives her a certain historical import. And, setting aside all serious considerations, she's just plain fun. Fun and funny.
The book opens with a poem about...bridge. (“Didn't you hear what I bid?”) It moves on to “Any Porch,” a pastiche of overheard conversations. (“I really look thinner, you say?”) She decries “the lady in back,” who invariably ruins her night at the theater. She touches on every popular subject, even psychotherapy: “Where a Freud in need is a Freud indeed/we'll always be Jung together.”
Parker's stock in trade is the last line that dramatically reverses the energy of the poem --- and slaps the reader in the face. Thus, a poem about Hollywood ends: “The streets are paved with Goldwyn.” Well, how else?
And there are many poems that are just droll jokes:
Oh, 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 Romania.
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
If Parker were only cleverness and verve, she'd be worth a paragraph in a chapter on the '20s. What makes her poems interesting is that her pain shows through the wit. In a great poet, this is no big deal; when the poet in question is paying her rent with her poems, it means something that she goes beyond froth. As, here:
When all the world was younger.
When petals lay as snow.
What recked I of the hunger
An empty heart can know?
For love was young and cheery,
And love was quick and free;
Tomorrow might be weary,
But when was that to me?
But now the world is older,
And now tomorrow's come.
The winds are rushing colder,
And all the birds are dumb.
And icy shackles fetter
The brooklet's sunny blue-
And I was never better;
But what is that to you?
“I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true,” Parker once said. Sadly for her, in addition to poems that tell more than she may have intended, “Not Much Fun” includes an introduction, by Stuart Y. Silverstein, that's so authoritative and amusingly annotated it's almost a biography. Together, they give a rollicking and touching picture of a woman you'd never want to be --- but would surely want to know.
To buy “Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker” from Amazon.com, click here. 
To buy "The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker" from Amazon.com, click here. 
To buy “The Portable Dorothy Parker” from Amazon.com, click here .