All Souls Day and Dorothy Parker: “You might as well live.”

ZP_Dorothy Parker_Enough Rope frontispiece_1926ZP_Frontispiece for Dorothy Parker’s Enough Rope_1926_taken from her 1936 collected poems entitled Not so deep as a well


In 1914, 21-year-old Dorothy Parker was hired by Vogue magazine in New York as an editorial assistant. By 1918 she was a staff writer for Vanity Fair where she began penning play reviews in place of an on-holiday P.G. Wodehouse.

The way she wrote – how to describe it?  This was something new:  cute as a button, sharp as a tack;  the driest gin with a drop of grenadine syrup. After two years the editor fired her for offending a bigwig producer (Broadway impresario Flo Ziegfeld), but she had already made a name for herself as a “fast woman” – fast with words, that is. Throughout the 1920s she would contribute several hundred poems and numerous columns to Life, McCall’s, Vogue, The New Republic, and The New Yorker (where she was one of that magazine’s earliest contributors when it began publishing in 1925.) Whatever her snappy, clever, seemingly off-the-cuff social commentaries projected – whether in theatre / book reviews or luncheon quips as a “member” of The Algonquin Round Table – Dorothy Parker’s poetry dealt much in love’s loss or love’s rejection; melancholy and sorrow; the appealing thought of one’s own Death.

ZP_a young Dorothy Parker_probably around 1918ZP_a young Dorothy Parker_around 1918

Parker is a poet who’s just right to feature on All Souls Day.  Indeed, she made the magnetic appeal of Death plain in her book titles:  Death and Taxes, Laments for the Living, and Here Lies.  We celebrate her peculiarly morbid liveliness with words, a liveliness she displayed even when she was really really down and joked – seriously – as only she could – about suicide.  Quoted in Vanity Fair in 1925, Parker proposed that her epitaph be: “Excuse my dust.”  Mistress of self-deprecation or being on the attack; vulnerable and wistful or hard as nails;  Parker was such things.  This made her – still makes her today – a complex ‘read’. But she’s worth it.


Born in 1893 to a German-Jewish father and a mother of Scottish descent who died when Dorothy was four years old, Parker (her married name from her first husband, a Wall-Street stockbroker, in 1917) – referred to her stepmother, whom her father married in 1900, as “the housekeeper” – early evidence of that wise-crack wit. Her father died in 1913, and by then Parker was already earning a living playing piano at a dance studio…and beginning to work on her verse.


Parker in the next two decades wrote a handful of incisive, bittersweet short stories – “Big Blonde” won the 1929 O. Henry Award and her literary reputation rests on those pieces as much as on her poetry. In 1928 she divorced from her first husband then had a series of affairs, one of which resulted in an abortion and a suicide attempt (among several over the years).  Of that amour and pregnancy she remarked: “How like me to put all my eggs into one bastard.”


But even by the time she reached middle age she remained insecure about her literary abilities. And upon her death in 1967 – of a heart attack, not suicide – she was living in an apartment-hotel in Manhattan and was – in truth – “forgotten but not gone.” In a 1956 interview in The Paris Review she stated: “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.” For this was one of her gnawing worries: was she just a wise-cracker and not a true wit? In fact, she was both – and in the New York of the 1920s – at least until the Wall Street “crash” of 1929 – there was room for the two; the wise-cracker got more press, though. One of her best poems combines both wise-crack and wit, in the right balance – perhaps something only she could do.



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.

.     .     .

Résumé” is from Parker’s first volume of poetry entitled Enough Rope (published 1926).  The following poems are also taken from that collection:


The Small Hours”


No more my little song comes back;

And now of nights I lay

My head on down, to watch the black

And wait the unfailing grey.


Oh, sad are winter nights, and slow;

And sad’s a song that’s dumb;

And sad it is to lie and know

Another dawn will come.

.     .     .

The Trifler”


Death’s the lover that I’d be taking;

Wild and fickle and fierce is he.

Small’s his care if my heart be breaking –

Gay young Death would have none of me.


Hear them clack of my haste to greet him!

No one other my mouth had kissed.

I had dressed me in silk to meet him –

False young Death would not hold the tryst.


Slow’s the blood that was quick and stormy,

Smooth and cold is the bridal bed;

I must wait till he whistles for me –

Proud young Death would not turn his head.


I must wait till my breast is wilted,

I must wait till my back is bowed,

I must rock in the corner, jilted –

Death went galloping down the road.


Gone’s my heart with a trifling rover.

Fine he was in the game he played –

Kissed, and promised, and threw me over,

And rode away with a prettier maid.

.     .     .

A very short Song”


Once, when I was young and true,

Someone left me sad –

Broke my brittle heart in two;

And that is very bad.


Love is for unlucky folk,

Love is but a curse.

Once there was a heart I broke;

And that, I think, is worse.

.     .     .

Light of Love”


Joy stayed with me a night –

Young and free and fair –

And in the morning light

He left me there.


Then Sorrow came to stay,

And lay upon my breast;

He walked with me in the day,

And knew me best.


I’ll never be a bride,

Nor yet celibate,

So I’m living now with Pride –

A cold bedmate.


He must not hear nor see,

Nor could he forgive

That Sorrow still visits me

Each day I live.

.     .     .

Somebody’s Song”


This is what I vow:

He shall have my heart to keep;

Sweetly will we stir and sleep,

All the years, as now.

Swift the measured sands may run;

Love like this is never done;

He and I are wedded one:

This is what I vow.


This is what I pray:

Keep him by me tenderly;

Keep him sweet in pride of me,

Ever and a day;

Keep me from the old distress;

Let me, for our happiness,

Be the one to love the less:

This is what I pray.


This is what I know:

Lovers’ oaths are thin as rain;

Love’s a harbinger of pain –

Would it were not so!

Ever is my heart a-thirst,

Ever is my love accurst;

He is neither last nor first:

This is what I know.

.     .     .

The New Love”


If it shine or if it rain,

Little will I care or know.

Days, like drops upon a pane,

Slip and join and go.


At my door’s another lad;

Here’s his flower in my hair.

If he see me pale and sad,

Will he see me fair?


I sit looking at the floor.

Little will I think or say

If he seek another door;

Even if he stay.

.     .     .

I shall come back”


I shall come back without fanfaronade

Of wailing wind and graveyard panoply;

But, trembling, slip from cool Eternity –

A mild and most bewildered little shade.

I shall not make sepulchral midnight raid,

But softly come where I had longed to be

In April twilight’s unsung melody,

And I, not you, shall be the one afraid.


Strange, that from lovely dreamings of the dead

I shall come back to you, who hurt me most.

You may not feel my hand upon your head,

I’ll be so new and inexpert a ghost.

Perhaps you will not know that I am near –

And that will break my ghostly heart, my dear.

.     .     .

Chant for Dark Hours”


Some men, some men

Cannot pass a

Book shop.

(Lady, make your mind up, and wait your life away.)


Some men, some men

Cannot pass a

Crap game.

(He said he’d come at moonrise, and here’s another day!)


Some men, some men

Cannot pass a


(Wait about, and hang about, and that’s the way it goes.)


Some men, some men

Cannot pass a

Golf course.

(Read a book, and sew a seam, and slumber if you can.)


Some men, some men

Cannot pass a


(All your life you wait around for some damn man!)

.     .     .

Unfortunate Coincidence”


By the time you swear you’re his,

Shivering and sighing,

And he vows his passion is

Infinite, undying –

Lady, make note of this:

One of you is lying.

.     .     .



Four be the things I am wiser to know:

Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.


Four be the things I’d been better without:

Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.


Three be the things I shall never attain:

Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.


Three be the things I shall have till I die:

Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

.     .     .



If I should labour through daylight and dark,

Consecrate, valorous, serious, true,

Then on the world I may blazon my mark;

And what if I don’t, and what if I do?

.     .     .



They hail you as their morning star

Because you are the way you are.

If you return the sentiment,

They’ll try to make you different;

And once they have you, safe and sound,

They want to change you all around.

Your moods and ways they put a curse on;

They’d make of you another person.

They cannot let you go your gait;

They influence and educate.

They’d alter all that they admired.

They make me sick, they make me tired.

.     .     .

General Review of the Sex Situation”


Woman wants monogamy;

Man delights in novelty.

Love is woman’s moon and sun;

Man has other forms of fun.

Woman lives but in her lord;

Count to ten, and man is bored.

With this the gist and sum of it,

What earthly good can come of it?

.     .     .

The following poems are taken from Parker’s volume Death and Taxes (published 1931):




Tonight my love is sleeping cold

Where none may see and none shall pass.

The daisies quicken in the mold,

And richer fares the meadow grass.


The warding cypress pleads the skies,

The mound goes level in the rain.

My love all cold and silent lies –

Pray God it will not rise again!

.     .     .

The Lady’s Reward”


Lady, lady, never start

Conversation toward your heart;

Keep your pretty words serene;

Never murmur what you mean.

Show yourself, by word and look,

Swift and shallow as a brook.

Be as cool and quick to go

As a drop of April snow;

Be as delicate and gay

As a cherry flower in May.

Lady, lady, never speak

Of the tears that burn your cheek –

She will never win him, whose

Words had shown she feared to lose.

Be you wise and never sad,

You will get your lovely lad.

Never serious be, nor true,

And your wish will come to you –

And if that makes you happy, kid,

You’ll be the first it ever did.

.     .     .

Coda” (from Parker’s 1928 volume Sunset Gun)


There’s little in taking or giving,

There’s little in water or wine;

This living, this living, this living

Was never a project of mine.

Oh, hard is the struggle, and sparse is

The gain of the one at the top,

For art is a form of catharsis,

And love is a permanent flop,

And work is the province of cattle,

And rest’s for a clam in a shell,

So I’m thinking of throwing the battle –

Would you kindly direct me to Hell?

.     .     .     .     .