Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Dorothy Parker - Resume


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.

---Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker's Resume

As we approach the middle of the second year of my National Poetry Month blog I'm beginning to notice myself evolving as a blogger. One thing in particular is bothering me: how long will I be able to keep this going. Sure, I have enough poems to write about to complete this year and I probably have enough to start next year's blog, but what about after that? At what point will I run out of poems that I consider to be my favorites? When will I start including poems that I kinda sorta like, poems that I'd halfheartedly check the “YES” box to if a note was passed my way during class asking if I'd read them? Thankfully that's a problem for another day. Today's problem is no less complex: as I write this essay that will eventually delve into Dorthy Parker's Resume, I'm wondering about your expectations, as an audience, for these daily blog entries. Do you expect to log on and be greeted with a poem you've never read before? Do you expect my analysis to unlock the essence of the poem for you? Do you hope that I'll write less about the technical side of poetry and more about the emotional side?

At some point all artists wonder about their audience and this can be a very dangerous thing. Breaking it down to the ground level, I'm not painfully worried about the questions I posed in the previous paragraph. I know what's at the heart of this blog; I know the reasons I'm writing these essays. Part of me feels like it's a cop-out to choose Resume or The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock because they are enormously famous poems with loads already written about them. If you're expecting something original from my blog and you see one of those poems featured you might be disappointed. At the same time, these poems are very, very good; that's why they're in countless anthologies and that's why they're being studied in classrooms all over the world as I type this very sentence. I might not always unearth the newest, grandest poem for you. In fact, I might issue some poems you've read a handful of times, poems you consider to be stale and unimaginative. In that case, I hope I've done enough over the course of the blog's history to implore you to read on, if for no other reason than to understand why I have a crush on the poem.

In the mold of intelligent, quick-thinkers like Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker had a way with turning witty phrases. Books have been filled with her quotable words, spoken and written alike. I'm fascinated by Wilde, Twain, Parker, and thinkers like them; their brains seem wired to snap out phrases that will resonate into eternity. In our modern world of press conferences and pre-written statements anyone can be made to sound articulate and moderately smart, but still only a select few rise above with effortless and natural responses. Dorothy Parker was one of those originals and, although it's a poem that could have been revised thoroughly before publication, what we have with Resume is eight lines of tightly constructed rhymes, powerful images, and one witty and startling turn at the end.

There's an unfortunate tradition of suicide among poets. The list is so long in fact that I'm afraid I could fill a whole page with talented poets who left the world by their own hands. I'm not sure why poets have seemingly been more prone to mental illness and depression than other careers. Surely someone has studied this trend and written about it before. I'd be willing to bet that Dorothy Parker is one of the first people to write a good poem about suicide with gallows humor. She takes the topic of suicide and dissects it by examining the deficiencies of all the ways a person can kill himself or herself. Some of her reasons are logical: “Razors pain you,” while others are far-fetched: “Rivers are damp” and “Guns aren't lawful” (why exactly would a woman who wants to kill herself care about the legality of it all or that she might get a little wet?). In reality, the first and last lines of the poem might be the most logical, while the others in between are where the absurdity accumulates. Dorothy seems to be asserting what's the point in forcing death to come, when it will naturally come for us some day.

Taking a closer look at the technical aspects of the poem illuminates why this poem works so well. Obviously the poem is very ordered with end rhymes, syllables counts, and subject then verb lines. The stiffness of the form could easily make the poem itself seem stiff, but Parker avoids this fate by infusing voice and pace into the poem. A driving pace moves the poem through the list of ways to kill yourself, ultimately reaching a final line that makes the poem brilliant and brings to light the poem's voice at the same time. Before “You might as well live,” the poem is a puzzling list of harmful agents, but with that final line everything ties together. It is the cliched missing piece. Read the poem without the final line and you have nothing but a depressing list of ways to kill yourself. Knowing that the final line is key to the whole poem, let's look a little closer at the key to the final line: “might.” You might as well live. It's not you “have” to live or you “must” live. It's not a passionate call to live; instead, it's a nonchalant, almost indifferent resignation. Since you've got nothing else better to do and since the alternative is downright hideous, well, I guess you might as well live. It's a very sly bit of reverse psychology on Dorothy Parker's part, the same type of sly wit that characterized her entire writing and speaking career.


Unknown said...

As a daily reader I would like to see some of your poems and how you came up with them...

Lets see your resume!

Unknown said...

Oh and not to stifle your creativity, but 250 words or less would make it fit into my RSS reader... twitter style!

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Hi David,

Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you're interested in my own poetry. Once we reach the end of April I'll post a poem or two of mine and an essay to go along with them. A few of my poems are posted at the end of last year's blog (around May 2008). Thank you for reading my blog and commenting.

All the best,