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

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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.

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*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.

Looking for a Way to Go

The year 2018 marches on, as we pass onward past Thanksgiving toward December. I’m quite thankful for the opportunity to continue this project. Time-consuming though it is to do these pieces, it also continues to fascinate me and (one hopes) it also continues to surprise and entertain you. For me there’s considerable enjoyment in trying out or finding out something new, thinking about something, or playing something, different.

Another blog that gives me those pleasures is My Year in 1918,  where its author has been immersing herself in the publications of that epochal year. Her recent thankfulness post looked at some 1918-era people she has run into on that nearly year-long project. As Thomas Hardy put it in his poem of this era, it was a time of the breaking of nations, but as Mary Grace McGeehan looks over her year of 1918, she highlights a few that were mending and mitigating.

Though they may no longer be as well-known, some of McGeehan’s list you and I might recognize: W. E. B. Du Bois, Jane Adams. Others, such as women’s suffrage activist Anna Kelton Wiley and bra designer Mary Phelps Jacob were unknown to me. Three writers get a nod, all three wrote poetry: Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams and Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy Parker 1924

That plant looks like it could use a little water. Dorothy Parker at home in 1924.

 

Amy Lowell is a literary force I need to address sometime in my own project, though I’ve yet to absorb anything of her poetry. Though I overlooked Williams in my youth, he’s grown on me throughout this project as his public domain, pre-1923, work explores the lyric impulse with eyes whose perspective has been expanded by the Modernist explosion. The third, Parker, is a double surprise. I can see where My Year in 1918’s McGeehan will encounter her, as Parker was writing for magazines (one of My Year in 1918’s chief sources of material), but she’s not some inescapable pantheon writer. And though later in life she became a committed social activist, particularly in regard to African-American civil rights, her WWI self had yet to develop in this regard. But she’s a, a—oh, the never-immortal shame, the art that dare not speak its name—a humorist.

Algonquin Round Table

Parker with the Algonquin Round Table group of wits. We don’t know if they’re having lunch with those drinks, but it’s something of a sausage fest anyway.  I haven’t seen a caption naming those present, proof that humorists don’t make the pantheon. Besides Parker on the lower right, I think it’s Alexander Woollcott 2nd from left in the upper row, but I’m drawing a blank on the rest.

 

Humorists, whatever their skill and craft, tend to damage their reputations as literary figures. We like our literary titans dour and serious for the most part. They can scatter a little wit around for decoration or as weaponry, but to be celebrated for their merit—even if that’s all we end up really noting about them, their worthy merit—you need to rise above that. The assumption seems to be: if the point is to make you laugh, the point is ephemeral.

We think too little of humorists as agents of social change, or as participants in the Modernist artistic revolution of the early 20th Century. We do this even after Dada, even after Mark Twain’s now-recognized status as another American who broke Modernist ground before the 20th century.

To take Dorothy Parker seriously (not solemnly) you need to start by acknowledging that she’s fighting with two hands tied behind her back: she’s a woman before women were considered capable of human complexity, and she wants you to laugh at our folly. Parker survives at times wielding dark, survivors’ humor, the sensibility that remembers her poem “Resumé,”  a meme in verse about suicide. She might step on a few toes while doing that, and she’ll laugh about it.

Alternate voice here, Dave Moore, has appreciated Dorothy Parker for some time. Several years back the LYL Band covered Alan Moore’sMe and Dorothy Parker,”  and here today is the LYL Band doing a Dave Moore original that expands on Parker’s observations on suicide in his own words.

Parker ended “Resumé”  with the punch-line “You might as well live.” I’d add, you might as well create art. After all, even in the worst-case, you’re only burning part of your life-time while struggling with joy and it’s opposite. If there’s no hope, you might as well hope.

Thanks again for reading and listening. Thanks to spreading the word about the Parlando Project. In the Internet world of millions of likes and shares, we’re a small thing, but I’m grateful for you helping keep this little thing going. The player for the LYL Band’s performance of Dave Moore’s “Looking for a Way to Go”  is below.