8. Dorothy Parker – Complete Poems (1926-1944)

Finally – a revelation!

As I entered the second month of the project, I was beginning to wonder if effort will outstrip reward. I took a chance on a collection of Dorothy Parker poetry and – lo and behold – a valuable and unexpected set of connections revealed themselves.

Parker is one of those inimitable voices of the early American century. She specialised in “light verse”; a comic genre built on perfect rhymes and witty retorts. Its form is polite but its tone is blunt. It’s quintessentially 1920s, and nobody does it better than Parker.

According to Stewart, Burroughs never spoke at length about Parker, nor acknowledged direct influence, but he did list her among his favourite writers.

Having read the Complete Poems, I believe the debt to be greater than Burroughs himself suggests. It could be that, like his love of Jane Austen’s novels, this is a guilty pleasure for Burroughs. He knew high society himself, but preferred to surround himself with outlaws and addicts; people for whom the worlds of Parker and Austen would be entirely alien.

Burroughs’ humour, after all, is cynical. Absolute, pitch-black cynicism, revealing the hypocrisy and brutality that hides beneath polite euphemisms. Born in 1914, he grew up in the 1920s, and no doubt absorbed much of his sense of humour then.

The most direct parallel between the two writers are Parker’s “hate songs”.

Her only non-rhyming works, these consist of extended parodies. Her targets include summer vacations, college boys, husbands, actresses, bohemians and parties. Her hate songs to women and to reformers are particularly pertinent here.

                I hate Women.

                They get on my Nerves.

                There are the Domestic ones.

                They are the worst.

                Every moment is packed with Happiness.

                They breathe deeply

                And walk with large strides, eternally hurrying home

                To see about dinner…

The pleasure of the poem is half in her raillery itself and half in what it tells us of the person doing the railing. In “women” the targets seem particularly undeserving of their criticism, and so the extremes to which the speaker goes are themselves funny; frustration taken to hyperbole.

                I hate Reformers;

                They raise my blood pressure

                There are the Prohibitionists;

                The fathers of bootlegging.

                They made us what we are today –

                I hope they’re satisfied.

                They can prove that the Johnstown flood,

                And the blizzard of 1888,

                And the destruction of Pompeii

                Were all due to alcohol…

Here the seriousness of the reformers are used against them. Like characters in Moliere, they see the world only through their obsession – their idée fixe – and, in so doing, lead to their own demise. Parker’s prohibitionists are drunk on sobriety. Her puritanical censors spend their lives hunting for smut.

Her “All-American Crabs” say “it’s all wrong! It’s all wrong” – to which Parker replies: “I agree!”

One can’t help but be reminded of Burroughs’ “Thanksgiving Prayer”:

Thanks for the wild turkey and the passenger pigeons

Destined to be shit out through wholesome American guts.

Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison.

Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum

Of challenge and danger.

Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin

Leaving the carcasses to rot.

Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes.

Thanks for the American dream

To vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through.

Although not identical to Parker’s “hate songs” there are plenty of structural and tonal similarities. The twists on “wholesome American” imagery subvert our expectations in a similar way, set-up followed by punch-line:

Thanks for the American dream…

                                                                To vulgarize and to falsify

                Thanks for the wild turkey…

                                                                Destined to be shit out

                Thanks for a continent…

                                                                To despoil and poison

His imagery is more excessive, but it is the same iconoclastic humour. Like the “hate songs” it builds up and, like the songs, ends on a killer line: “thanks for the last and greatest betrayal / of the last and greatest of human dreams”.

There are plenty more examples of parallels.

Parker’s quote-pieces, like “Any Porch”, purporting to be made up of phrases overheard at social gatherings; these foreshadow the polyvocal chaos of Hassan’s rumpus room.

Her character pieces, like “Ninos De L’Enclos, on her Last Birthday”, where a woman describes her raucous love life only to conclude: “the dear young men, the poor young men – they think I’m only seventy!” – could be any number of dowagers and old maids who show up in Burroughs’ orgies to spoil the fun.

Her “Song of Perfect Propriety” even mimics Burroughs’ Place of Dead Roads; the writer-speaker daydreaming about life as an outlaw, a cowboy, a pirate and a party-girl only to end up back in reality “writing little songs, as little ladies will”.

Finally, in Parker’s worst moods, we see the gun nut emerge:

                If I had a shiny gun

                I could have a world of fun

                Speeding bullets through the brains

                Of the folk who give me pains

The resonances between these two writers are clearly significant, and it’s an area that has gone so far entirely unexplored. I can’t help but wonder how much else of the 1920s can be found in Burroughs’ work.

He certainly loved Fitzgerald, and lectures on The Great Gatsby at Naropa University. He concludes that Gatsby “could only exist in the 1920s”. It’s not a statement he goes on to explain, but most likely looking out over a room of young people, all born after 1945, was enough to cut short the nostalgia-trip.

There’s a lot of interesting material to be unearthed here. It will no doubt be a major focus going forward.