Distance Blues (Theory)

Here’s another woman writing very compressed verse about life and love around a hundred years ago, during that last decade we called “The Twenties.” She’s Dorothy Parker, and you’ll often find her work filed under “humorist.” As I said a few years ago when first talking here about Parker, I suspect that classification tended to prevent her work being discussed as poetry.

Young Dorothy Parker

Let me extend Charles Mingus: If Dorothy Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead serious romantic poets


That label, used to set humor aside from “important work,” like the idea that verse sung with music is unlikely to be real poetry, seems not just needlessly exclusionary, but ahistorical. The western classical canon didn’t make this distinction when the verse was in Greek or Latin. Maybe translation slows down the appreciation of the jokes in Catullus for example? Perhaps Parker’s real fault (other than being a woman who wasn’t publishing in poetry journals in this era) was in being seen as “only” a humorist, and one that tended to write, like several other popular female poets of her time, about the abundant absurdities in human romantic relationships.*

This April I finished my several-year serial-performance of Eliot’s “The Waste Land,”  a poem that wants to, indeed its innovative design is to, talk about a wide variety of things. Its middle part, like our middle parts, is very concerned with just such human miss-connections — but for good or ill that section is surrounded by an elaborate series of scenes time-adrift and spiritual that wear the mask of tragedy and religious/academic vestments. Does Eliot ever make you laugh at the absurdities? Well, there are a few sly jokes in it — but more in contrast, “The Waste Land”  is long, it’s elaborate, and for me it remains powerful assuming you can accept the way Eliot sung his suite of songs printed silent on paper. Is elaboration the superior art? You tell me. I think it has its powers, as does concision. Are we less likely to be moved or changed by laughter or tears? Again, you tell me, I don’t know.

Where is it that Parker fails if we are not to consider her short pieces, printed in glossy magazines as witty amusements, as actual poetry? Are her observations merely trite, just a chuckle the first time we hear them, and unrewarding beyond that? Does humor outdate faster than solemn meditations?

I’ll sing a couple, and you decide. Today’s audio piece is an old recording where I combined two Parker poems, “Distance”  and “Theory,”  with a bit of acoustic guitar blues feeling. Combining short pieces is a tactic taken by several of the Modernists of Parker’s era:** the idea is that short, epigrammatic poems can gain power if presented as a facet in a collection of other short verses. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, and if you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab or window to allow you to hear it.


*Parker also ridicules patriarchal attitudes, which might have been minimized as mere jokes without consequence to assuage male privilege, but she’s also rough on some female-gendered behavior. This can be read by some as both-sides-ism, but maybe there’s also a reading that says it’s a more essential, radical critic of gender.

**I’ve been thinking about that tactic, used by poets Wallace Stevens, Alfred Kreymborg, Edgar Lee Masters, and others in the early Modernist era, and just now I recognized that the common practice of Blues singers of combining as series of floating or not directly related Blues verses has at least surface similarity. Perhaps this subconsciously led me to combining two Parker poems in my bluesy singing of them — but it could also be for a practical reason, one that may have obtained for some of the Blues singers: it made a piece out of shorter material that reaches a longer, desired length.