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Friday, March 25, 2011

Number 105: Dorothy Parker "Ballade Of A Great Weariness"

Ballade Of A Great Weariness

There's little to have but the things I had,
There's little to bear but the things I bore.
There's nothing to carry and naught to add,
And glory to Heaven, I paid the score.

There's little to do but I did before,
There's little to learn but the things I know;
And this is the sum of a lasting lore:
Scratch a lover, and find a foe.

And couldn't it be I was young and mad
If ever my heart on my sleeve I wore?
There's many to claw at a heart unclad,
And little the wonder it ripped and tore.
There's one that'll join in their push and roar,
With stories to jabber, and stones to throw;
He'll fetch you a lesson that costs you sore:
Scratch a lover, and find a foe.

So little I'll offer to you, my lad;
It's little in loving I set my store.
There's many a maid would be flushed and glad,
And better you'll knock at a kindlier door.
I'll dig at my lettuce, and sweep my floor,
Forever, forever I'm done with woe.
And happen I'll whistle about my chore,
"Scratch a lover, and find a foe."


Oh, beggar or prince, no more, no more!
Be off and away with your strut and show.
The sweeter the apple, the blacker the core:
Scratch a lover, and find a foe!

-- Dorothy Parker

Hap Notes: Oh, Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is so well known for cracking wise or being sophisticatedly sad and alcoholic that we forget what she really needed was a mom. Her own mother died when she was five, she had a step-mother (she didn't care for much) and she died when Parker was nine.

Her dad had some money and Dorothy's schooling came from private catholic schools (even though her mom was protestant and her dad was Jewish) and her formal education stopped when she was in junior high. She had some private tutors and was very well-read. While she is often spoken of as being Jewish this is not technically true, your mother must be Jewish, the honor is passed on maternally. I do not believe she practiced any particular religion- she, however, was involved in various and sundry liberal causes. She had heart.

Parker is part and parcel with the famous Algonquin Round Table, that lunching set of clever writers which included Robert Benchley, F.P. Adams, Alexander Wolcott and Robert E. Sherwood. Big names all but as you may note, known more for their cleverness than their mighty prowess with a pen. They all had cunning and delightful pens, but they were more about charm than craft.

Parker (and I'm pretty sure all of them, really) knew this. They were the bench team who wrote for newspapers and magazines with their witty bon mots and acid inks. For example, in 1925, while they were writing reviews and columns for the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, books published included Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos, Dark Laughter by Sherwood Anderson, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis and In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway. (See what I mean- the "round table" was the "B" team. Just two years later Hesse had Steppenwolf , Proust was finishing up Remembrance of Things Past and Heidegger published Being and Time.)

I point this out because Parker had the chops, really, to be serious. Note how she understands the Ballade form and fills it with so much depth in spite of its light tone. Parker and Villon are cautionary tales of hanging out with your fun (and troubling) pals too much- you'll either end up in jail or as a fashionable cocktail garnish.

Parker wrote for the movies in Hollywood, too, and is credited on A Star Is Born, Hitchcock's Saboteur, The Little Foxes, and a good dozen other films.

I believe she was so busy trying to replace her mom and dad (whom she said was abusive) with a partner and friendships, that her art was used to beguile. She spent her writing time mostly expressing her identity for some love. We all give it to her now, of course, but she's dead so it cannot propel her to much greatness. She was in need of a huge amount of love. That's the only thing that can help cast off a bristling defensive persona.

If all this makes it sound like I do not like Parker you are so wrong. I love her work and wish she had been free of her hangups (which she writes about cleverly) to write things that are not such crumbling odes to her era. She had a natural gift which she used to get by. I want to push her to do more. I think she's got it in her.

She started the Screen Writer's Guild with Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett. She left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr. These are not the actions of a cocktail garnish, a writer of clever repartee.

Here's a cheery story to relieve the tedium of my heartbreak at her stalled career. Once she was in need of money and the film star John Gilbert sent her $2,000. Later, when Gilbert's career was failing and he was in trouble he needed the money and asked her if she could possibly pay some of it back. She sent him a check for the full amount. He sent her a dozen roses with a note: "Thank you, Miss Finland" (the only country that paid its war debt to the US.)

Parker is the very very best at interpreting her own work. Go here: listen to the aged Parker read her own work aloud and you'll see what I mean. Her short pithy poems take on new dignity with her phrasing.

Parker, of course, is full of clever quotes: "I'd like to have money. And I'd like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that's too adorable, I'd rather have money."

"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to."

And: “A ‘smartcracker’ they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words. I didn’t mind so much when they were good, but for a long time anything that was called a crack was attributed to me.”

You can find more Parker here:

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