Posts Tagged ‘Kurt Vonnegut’

Seven Ways of Looking at a Line of Poetry

November 6, 2016

zzwaking

Anthropologists tell us* that “some time between 75 thousand and 60 thousand years ago” homo sapiens underwent a remarkable change (194). This event occurred “somewhere on the African continent (most likely somewhere in its eastern or southwestern regions)” (193). Suddenly, our already impressive brains developed the capacity for symbolic thought. Our ancestors, who heretofore merely consisted of roving bands of uppidy carnivorous weapon-wielding bipeds, were transformed into artists, shamans, scientists, and engineers. World-domination was now only a matter of time.

These new-and-improved brains rendered representational art, handicraft, metaphor, music, dance, language and poetry essential to our existence.

As Kurt Vonnegut notes, this spectacular transformation gave us not only the capacity and the inclination to produce Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; it also gave us the capacity and the inclination to

burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities.

I’m seriously into words. I have argued that it’s ultimately impossible to separate language from poetry because our ancestors began playing with words as soon as they began to invent them. Uttered phonemes are automatically poetic just like every basket and every arrowhead homo sapiens produce is a work of art.

Death and disruption at an early age hurt Theodore Roethke into poetry, as W. H. Auden suggests “mad Ireland” hurt W.B. Yeats into poetry. And oh what prodigious poetry Roethke did make! I’m going to spend a little bit of time talking about how to say the third line of a villanelle Roethke wrote called “The Waking” because my brain spends a lot of time thinking about such things.

A villanelle is a nineteen-line Italian form in which the first and third lines are each repeated three times. (I’ve written a few of them myself.) (A smartass once wrote on this blog that “the cool thing about villanelles is that once you’ve written the first three lines, you’re 42% finished.”)

Here’s the first stanza of Roethke’s “The Waking.”

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I told you the dude was prodigious, right? Anyhow, the first and third lines of a good villanelle must be firm and flexible as much heavy lifting is expected of them. Here are some examples:

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

(First line of Auden’s “If I Could tell You”)

(I think I made you up inside my head.)
(Third Line of Sylvia Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song”)

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(Third Line of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”)

Now back to “The Waking.” If a reader must read the same lines four times in a nineteen-line poem, the poet should provide her with options about which words to stress. Here are seven ways to say line three of “The Waking”:

#1 I learn by going where I have to go

Learning is about destination rather than free will.

#2 I learn by going where I have to go

The essential lesson is in the destination

#3 I learn by going (pause) where I have to go

The journey, so to speak, is the destination.

#4 I learn by going where I have to go

The lesson is in the doing.

#5 I learn by going where I have to go

The important thing is that the experience is educational.

#6 I learn by going where I have to go.

It’s imperative to take a certain route that is nonetheless educational.

#7 I learn by going where I have to go.

I find out what I’m supposed to do only by doing it.

Art inevitably pops up wherever you have people and it’s our sacred duty to make it available to our children. (But this isn’t another jeremiad about those sick, sad losers who think our children are merely their test scores).

by Richard W. Bray

*Ian Tattersall, Masters of the Planet

Defy this Dreary Life

July 9, 2016

VVVVEarth

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.
Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Miles and miles of empty
Surround our lovely Earth
Human beings are blessed to share
The planet of our birth

We devastate and plunder
And treat it like a sewer
With rapacity to horrify
An interstellar viewer

We’re stupid and we’re greedy
And violent and cruel
Who came up with such a lot
Of self-destructive fools?

Everything that we create
Will decompose and rust
All of our accomplishments
Will tumble down to dust

Existence is a gift
Don’t misuse your ration
You must defy this dreary life
With kindness and compassion

by Richard W. Bray

Walking Makes Humans What We Are

June 12, 2016

WWHUNTERS

I have never hunted animals. And I used to wonder how hunters walking around lugging heavy guns could ever get close enough to their prey in order to shoot it. Most animals can easily smell/see/hear humans long before the hunters get into firing range and then they could simply run away. Meaty mammals tend to be much faster runners than humans. What I didn’t realize is that human beings are designed to walk and walk and walk until our prey is too exhausted to continue. Then we use our weapons to kill it. And then we cook it and eat it.

In Masters of the Planet, an excellent introduction to human evolution, Ian Tattersall describes how the ability to walk great distances was key to the hunting prowess of homo ergaster, “an extinct ancestral form on the evolutionary scale of the genus Homo” that “lived in eastern and southern Africa during the early Pleistocene, that is, between 1.8 million and 1.3 million years ago.” Tattersall explains that “although homo ergaster would hardly have been fast compared to four-legged predators, its newer slender hips and long legs would have made members of the species exemplary distance runners.”

This evolutionary innovation gives homo sapiens a huge advantage over our prey because, unlike humans, “most mammals do not have the capacity to shed the heat load acquired and generated during sustained activity in the tropic sun, except by pausing in the shade while it slowly dissipates, largely through panting.” That’s why hunters will eventually catch their prey.   “In the heat of the day, the human ability to simply keep going would have allowed these lucky bipeds to single out, say, an antelope, and to keep chasing it, until it fell from heat prostrations” Or we can just kill it with our weapons when we get close enough.

Our ancestors made the remarkable transition from prey to predator.  Human beings are designed to vanquish by walking and running after animals until we get close enough to kill them.  This evolutionary history remains a major component of our collective psyche whether we like it or not.  And we should never forget this, even in an age when, for most of us, meat comes from the back of the supermarket.

So, Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare, in addition to being a marvelous parable on the efficacy of slow and steady diligence, is also the true story of how Our Hunting Fathers survived. Human beings are designed to “simply keep going” and going and going.

And simply trudging along is how our species came to inhabit and dominate so much of the planet.

I’m really glad that I exist as a human being; I wouldn’t trade in this particular vehicle of consciousness for anything in the world.  But our evolutionary success has had ominous ramifications for many of our fellow inhabitants of planet Earth.

As novelist Kurt Vonnegut notes, the human tendency to simply keep on walking and consuming has a dark side:

humanity itself had become an unstoppable glacier made of hot meat, which ate up everything in sight and then made love, and then doubled in size again.

Soldiers drilling, refugees fleeing, shoppers shopping, children strolling to school. Walking. It’s what we do and it’s one of the most essential things that makes us who we are.

Final word to Fats Domino:

By Richard W. Bray

 

 

 

 

Writing: Sketch and Fill, Write, Write, Prune, Sitting, Standing, Morning, Afternoon or Night

May 30, 2016
Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

 

I write in the afternoon, like everybody else” asserts Dylan Thomas in the in the Caedmon Collection, a fantastic set of recordings of the poet’s live readings which are introduced by Billy Collins.

This would be a curious comment coming from most writers, but Thomas was a notoriously late drinker. Actually, he was a round-the-clock drinker.  In one of his introductions, Collins laments the foibles of Thomas, who was often confused, lost, and inebriated across America during the early 1950s.  (My dad had tickets to a see Thomas at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont, CA; sadly, as on many other occasions, Thomas was unable to make the show.)

I’m pretty sure most writers write in the morning when the mind is fresh. Many writers such as Kurt Vonnegut had to wake early to write before hitting the day job. Kafka would come home from his job at the insurance agency and nap so he could write when everyone else had gone to sleep and the house was quiet.

Ernest Hemingway’s approach to writing is strongly influenced by Freud.  Hemingway sees creativity as a sort of gas tank that is constantly being refueled by the subconscious mind. Hemingway recommends against allowing the brain to run on empty.

Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start. (Ernest Hemingway On Writing 42)

I don’t know if Graham Greene was familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s philosophy of writing, but he certainly practiced it. Greene had some sort of system that informed him exactly when he had written five hundred words. And that’s how much he wrote every morning, even if had to stop mid-sentence. Pretty soon after that he would start drinking, but this isn’t going to be another post about the inebriated scribbler, is it?

Writers write all sorts of ways: before breakfast, after dinner, dictating, typing, long-hand, short-hand, hunched over a keyboard, sitting up in bed, or standing up. Standing up is how Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, on a desk that his descendants later sold (along with 130 slaves) to pay off the Great Man’s debts after he died. Jefferson heartily enjoyed the finer things in life, particularly French wine. (Spendthrift Jefferson provides a stark contrast to frugal George Washington who made provisions in his will to leave Martha with a healthy estate and to also grant* manumission to all of his slaves.)

I have a theory that there are basically two types of prose-writers: Sketch and Fill writers and Write, Write, Prune, writers.

I’m a Sketch and Fill writer. I prefer to write in the morning and revise later in the day or during the evening. As my writer’s gas tank nears empty, I often begin to make notes on what I’m going to write about when I return to the keyboard with a fresh brain.

* to boldly split your infinitive is often the more poetic thing to do

by Richard W. Bray

Walt Whitman is the Poet We Deserve in the Age of Trump, but Emily Dickinson Reigns

May 28, 2016

wwemily

There are several reasons why Emily Dickinson does not inhabit her rightful position as the greatest writer our culture has yet produced—she sedulously avoided publicity in her own lifetime (“How dreary – to be – Somebody!”); a comprehensive scholarly edition of her poetry was not compiled until almost seventy years after her death (long after the cannon had been established); she is often celebrated for her winsome poems that find their way into the high school textbooks like “I Shall Not Live in Vain” which represent only a tiny fraction of her output; she wrote short poems. (There is an absurd bias among critics in favor of “epic” poetry). Finally, we cannot overlook the obvious fact that Emily Dickinson was a woman and most of our cannon-selectors have been men, many of whom no doubt shared Nathaniel Hawthorne’s contempt for that “mob of scribbling women”

Moreover, elevating Emily Dickinson to her rightful place atop the pantheon of American poets would call into question the singular supremacy of Walt Whitman. Whitman, who sees himself as the great champion of democracy, claims to “contain multitudes” in his writing, but he merely embodies mountains of self-regard:

If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of
   my own body,
or any part of it.

It is his intrepid endeavor to displace God with Self rather than the actual quality of his work which makes Whitman the darling so many humanist critics. As Alfred Kazin notes in God and the American Writer, for Whitman

There is no one supreme Deity, no hierarchy, no heaven. It is on earth and nowhere else that we live out the divine in ourselves to which we are called. We are as gods when we recognize all things as one. Spiritually, we are sovereign—entirely—thanks to our culture of freedom. As we dismiss whatever offends our own souls, so we can trust our own souls for knowledge of the infinite.

Like the self-deluded subjects who claim to see the Emperor’s New Clothes (and like the editors at Social Text who published Alan Sokal’s intentional gibberish) few critics today are able to discern this manifest truth—Walt Whitman is an overblown, narcissistic, self-worshipping buffoon. (“In all people I see myself.”) Of course, in so many ways, Whitman’s solipsism makes him precisely the national icon we deserve, particularly in the Age of Trump. (It is not at all surprising that Bill Clinton gave his girlfriend a copy of a book by Whitman, although we might have expected him to choose “Song of Myself” rather than Leaves of Grass.)

Walt Whitman’s poetry delivers much music but very little sense, irony, or wit. Despite his gargantuan reputation, the words of Whitman taken together hardly amount to a single metaphorical dead white blood cell inside the metaphorical pustule existing inside the metaphorical pimple on Emily Dickinson’s glorious metaphorical backside. Dickinson proves again and again that she is capable of saying more in fewer than thirty syllables than Whitman ever gets across in page after page of his rambling jingle jangle.

One of the wonders of Emily Dickinson’s capacious mind is her ability to entertain opposing thoughts. As Richard Wilbur notes in “Sumptuous Destitution,” his splendid 1959 article on Emily Dickinson, she is “not a philosopher.” This is precisely why she can embrace paradox in a manner that would be difficult for a philosopher, thus expanding our understanding of our bizarre universe.

In “Faith Is a Fine Invention,” for example, Dickinson seems to ridicule the tendency to cling to faith in our modern age.

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see–
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

Note the irony of calling faith (rather than the microscope) an invention. And what is it exactly that gentleman can see? Evidence of an invisible God, perhaps? But she is also lampooning those whose superstitious faith prevents them from seeing what wonders science reveals. One is reminded of Christian Scientists who would deny her children medical attention on religious grounds.

In “I Never Saw a Moor,” however, Dickinson defends faith entirely for its own sake. If you will pardon the tautology, she knows because she knows.

I never saw a moor;
I never saw the sea,
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven.
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the checks were given.

Paradox is not a manifestation of reality; it is a consequence of the limitations of human perception. As Kurt Vonnegut notes in the novel Deadeye Dick, birth and death amount to the opening and closing of a “pinhole.” Great poets enable us to slightly expand the boundaries of our pinhole. That’s why my favorite philosophers are mostly poets.

by Richard W. Bray

Angry Atheist Syndrome

May 1, 2016

wwwangry

 

The following exchange from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five takes place in a  WWII POW camp between a German guard and an American prisoner.  It highlights the arbitrary and capricious nature of human existence.

An American had muttered something which a guard did not like. The guard knew English, and he hauled the American out of ranks, knocked him down.
The American was astonished. He stood up shakily, spitting blood. He had meant no harm by what he had said, evidently, had no idea the guard would hear or understand.
“Why me?” he asked the guard.
Vy you? Vy anybody?” he said.

“That’s not fair” is a common kid complaint, to which parents in Southern California sometimes respond “If you want fair, go to Pomona.” (Pomona is where the LA County Fairgrounds are.)  In other words, “Life ain’t fair, kid; you better hurry up and get used to it.”

Human beings (and at least some of our poop-flinging primate cousins) are hardwired by evolution to seek fairness and equity. So a big part of the human struggle consists of coming to terms with a world where, as poet Robert Pinsky notes,  “nobody gets what they deserve more than everybody else.

This is something that Christian and nonbeliever alike must deal with. Theosophy is the branch of theology devoted to answering the following question: How can a just, merciful, and loving God allow so much suffering to exist in the world? Here are some stock answers: God is a mystery beyond human comprehension; God will mete out perfect distributive justice in the afterlife; humanity is “fallen” (it’s Eve’s darn fault for eating that blasted apple.)

As a devout deist, I also believe that God is beyond human comprehension. But unlike Christians, I refuse to anthropomorphize God in order to reduce the incomprehensible chasm between God and humanity. And I think it’s extremely unlikely that God gives a rat’s patootie about me or about anything else for that matter. (Caring about things is a function of possessing a physical body; I really can’t imagine that God has one. Besides, the universe was around for a long, long time before humans showed up, so existence obviously isn’t about us.)

So how do I face life each day despite all of the suffering and injustice in the world? By constantly reminding myself about everything that is good and beautiful in this world, especially Love.

Unfortunately, not all atheists are as well-adjusted as I am. And many atheists fall into the trap of hating God and religion because it’s so much easier than confronting the font of anger which dwells within their breasts.

Such God-hating atheists as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Wright, and Bill Maher come off as pathetic, bellowing fools.

The subtitle of a book Hitchens wrote about organized religion is How Religion Spoils Everything.  Everything?  Talk about your unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations.

Like Hitchens, Richard Wright is incapable of appreciating anything that is good or beautiful about organized religion. In his memoir Black Boy, Wright heaps scorn on the African American church, a great and lovely institution which, in addition to offering succor to so many in pain, has also been at the forefront of the heroic struggle for civil rights.

Wright is “disgusted” by the “snobbery, clannishness, gossip, intrigue, petty class rivalry, and conspicuous displays of cheap clothing” which he encounters in church. Of course, with the possible exception of “cheap clothing,” these phenomena are apparent in all human institutions. It is disheartening that Wright’s quest to slay all dragons prevents him from experiencing the virtuous aspects of organized Christianity. He is absolutely blind to the worldly fellowship, charity, comfort, hope, and spiritual fulfillment religion has to offer. And the immense beauty of religious art and music are completely lost on him. As Wright sees it, “(t)he naked will to power seemed always to walk in the wake of a hymn”.

Bill Maher called religion a “neurological disorder” Of course, Bill Maher also said that children are “assholes” (presumable because they disturb him on airplanes.) And Maher also said that women are liars because he once gave his date twenty dollars to pick up something at the store and she forgot to give him change. Critical thinking is obviously not Bill Maher’s strong suit. (Arianna Huffington suggested that her friend Bill Maher needs to start dating a better class of women.)

 

by Richard W. Bray

Voices and Voices

March 5, 2016

wwwwwbrainvoices

There was no shutting them down! Whether we had anything for them to do or not, they ran all the time! And were they ever loud! Oh, God, were they ever loud.

—Kurt Vonnegut
, Galapagos

People and people screaming with need
Their dreams and desires and egos to feed
Attacking my senses and making me bleed

Bloody compassion fills me inside
My fragile existence cannot abide
I’ll dig me a hole where I can hide

But even alone I can’t clear my head
Voices and voices of anguish and dread
Rattle the skull until we are dead

by Richard W. Bray

Too Big for Our Own Good: Kurt Vonnegut on the Human Brain

February 8, 2015

 

So far the human episode has been a brief chapter in the story of life on Earth—about two hundred thousand years.  That’s not very long compared to the dung beetles who feed on rhinoceros droppings, which are the hearty descendants of bugs that were frolicking in dinosaur poop at least forty million years ago.  And sharks have been around for over 400 Million years.

Although it’s fun to fantasize about a time long ago when giant monsters roamed the earth, it’s much more painful to imagine a point in the future when Mother Nature says: “Time’s up, humans.  You had your chance, but you blew it.”   Indeed, as the poet Richard Wilbur notes, it’s almost impossible to imagine a future on this planet without us:

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?—

The novel Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut describes a future where evolution has altered humanity beyond recognition.  A million years hence, we have mutated into a furry, seal-like creature with flippers and a much smaller brain encased in a “streamlined skull.”  Our future progeny is no longer equipped to build skyscrapers or compose Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.  And these new creatures exhibit an immense moral superiority over modern-day humans because they lack the intellectual and physical tools to harm one another on a grand scale.  Besides, “how could you ever hold somebody in bondage with nothing but your flippers and your mouth?”

According to the Ghost of Leon Trout, the narrator of Galapagos who witnesses the million-year transformation of our species, this reduction of endowment is all for the better because humans

back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms!  There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute.

Trout’s Ghost concludes that the human brain “is much too big to be practical.”  A practical brain would never “divert” people from “the main business of life by the hobgoblins of opinion.” The main business of life, of course, is survival and procreation.  Yet by some freak of evolution, human beings are capable of so much more.

Trout’s Ghost laments how our “overelaborate nervous circuitry” is responsible “for the evils we [are] seeing or hearing about simply everywhere.”  Furthermore, such self-inflicted horrors as war, famine, slavery, and genocide are “as purely a product of oversized brains as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Trout’s ghost confides that, “A million years later, I feel like apologizing for the human race.”  He also describes “the most diabolical aspect” of the oversized human brain:

They would tell their owners, in effect, “Here is a crazy thing we could actually do.”….And then, as though in trances, the people would really do it—have slaves fight each other to the death in the Colosseum, or burn people alive in the public square for holding opinions which were locally unpopular, or build factories whose only purpose was to kill people in industrial quantities, or to blow up whole cities, and on and on.”

Here’s another disadvantage to having too much brain power for our own good:

Big brains back then were not only capable of being cruel for the sake of cruelty.  They could also feel all sorts of pain to which lower animals were entirely insensitive.

Today the “mass of mankind” is “quietly desperate” because “the infernal computers inside their skulls [are] incapable of idleness.”  The constant din of thought inside our brains that people must bear is akin to having “Ghetto blasters inside our heads.” And there is

no shutting them down! Whether we had anything for them to do or not, they ran “All the time!  And were they ever loud!  Oh, God, were they ever loud.”

Like Brick in Tennessee in Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” humanity craves to hear a “click in the head” which renders life “peaceful.” In Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut suggests an evolutionary solution to the plight which ails us.  And perhaps it is the most plausible solution.  As Emily Dickinson notes

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth That nibbles at the soul

by Richard W. Bray

The Existential Implications of “Unready to Wear”

December 4, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut

Now it is part of the Cartesian mode to think of consciousness as something peculiar to the head.  This is the organ originating consciousness.  It isn’t.  It’s an organ that inflects consciousness to a certain direction, a certain set of purposes, but there’s a whole consciousness here, in the body

Joseph Campbell from The Power of Myth (A PBS Documentary)

Sentience and consciousness are inseparable; thinking is a function of feeling.  The brain is not separate from the body; rather, the brain is part of the central nervous system, which runs throughout the body. In 1952 Kurt Vonnegut wrote a Science Fiction short story called “Unready to Wear” which pokes fun at the Cartesian notion of mind/body separation.

The unnamed narrator of “Unready to Wear” describes how people have become “amphibious” by liberating themselves from “parasite bodies” which “were a lot more trouble than they were worth.” The author notes that when an amphibian vacates the body, anger, greed, jealousy and vanity evaporate.

Although they are content to exist merely as souls, the amphibians maintain warehouses full of bodies which they reenter from time to time for reasons of nostalgia.  For example, the narrator’s wife Madge likes to occasionally visit her former house, so she

borrows a body once a month and dusts the place, though the only thing a house is good for now is keeping termites and mice from getting pneumonia.

As soon as an amphibious person enters body, however, “chemistry takes over” and the person become slave to his “glands”, rendering him

excitable or ready to fight or hungry or mad or affectionate, or—well, you never know what’s going to happen next.

Thus, reunited with a body, the amphibians are immediately overwhelmed by the body’s various appetites.  The narrator notes that he has never

met an amphibian yet who wasn’t easy to get along with, and cheerful and interesting –as long as he was outside a body. And I haven’t met one yet who didn’t turn a little sour when he got into one.

Our protagonist laments that

Nobody but a saint could be really sympathetic or intelligent for more than a few minutes at a time in a body–or happy, either, except in short spurts.

Unfortunately for humanity, our “bodies bring out the worst in us no matter how good our psyches are.” Of course, “Unready to Wear” is a silly story, but satire has its uses. Our narrator complains that “the mind is the only thing about human beings that’s worth anything.  Why does it have to be tied to a bag of skin, blood, hair, bones, and tubes?”  This question practically answer itself.  For human beings, the possibility of consciousness minus a physical body is an absurdity.  As the poet Theodore Roethke astutely explains, We think by feeling. And we have no alternative existential choice. We could never be happy or sad or angry or proud or anything else without the physical sensations that ignite thinking.* Whether we like it or not, human beings are animals.  However, we can take slight solace in the following observation from David Hume:

there is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of dove kneaded into our frame, along with elements of the wolf and the serpent.

*I’m borrowing that term from Marc D. Hauser

by Richard W. Bray

Ghosts of all my Lovely Sins: Some Thoughts on the Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

June 9, 2012

As Dorothy Parker once said
To her boyfriend, “Fare thee well”

Cole Porter Just One of Those Things

Years ago I was up late reading a poetry anthology when I came across a familiar passage from Wordsworth:

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!

I put the book down and thought, “You poor, poor man.” I was briefly flooded with empathy for Lucy and her chronicler. And this sensation connected my life and my various heartaches and disappointments with the turbid ebb and flow of human misery. (Soon I remembered that the people about whom I was reading had been dead for over a century. I picked up my book and went on to the next poem.)

Reading The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker, a women who “wore [her] heart like a wet, red stain,” I am reminded of the sage* who informs us that “Happiness is a sad song” (10).

Although I’m no stranger to heartache and self-pity, Mrs. Parker obviously possesses, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, a heart not so airy as mine.

The sun’s gone dim, and
   The moon’s turned black;
For I love him, and
   He didn’t love back.
(151)

Just about every human being who has ever lived has had a similar experience. But how many of us could condense so much feeling into eighteen beautifully collocated metrical syllables?

(A note on Light Verse: Kurt Vonnegut complained that critics mistook Science Fiction for a urinal, and that’s how I feel about this dismissive term often applied to rhymed poetry which possesses a healthy meter. Even when, for example, Phyllis McGinley writes of serious topics like nuclear annihilation, critics belittle such poetry by classifying it as light verse. This is why I am heartened by the growing presence of poets such as Mrs. Parker and Ogden Nash in the anthologies.)

Of course, the poetry of Dottie Parker would be a dreary place were it not for the courage she demonstrates by climbing back on that horse no matter how many times it throws her.

Better be left by twenty dears
    Than lie in a loveless bed;
Better a loaf that’s wet with tears
    Than cold, unsalted bread
(134)

And the existential vivacity of the tender heart which continues to grab life by the horns for all its gusto is heroic indeed.

For contrition is hollow and wrathful,
    And regret is no part of my plan,
And I think (if my memory’s faithful)
    There was nothing more fun than a man!
(172)

Perhaps not coincidentally, the tenacity of Mrs. Parker’s amorousness is matched (if not bested) by the ferocity of her malevolence.

Then if friendships break and bend,
    There’s little need to cry
The while I know that every foe
    Is faithful till I die.
(70)

Dorothy Parker is a legendary hurler of insults
who penned several composites of enmity which she calls “hate poems.” Here are some of her more artful derisions:

(Serious Thinkers)
They talk about Humanity
As if they had just invented it;
(224)

(Artists)
They point out all the different colors in a sunset
As if they were trying to sell it to you;
(236)

(Free Verse)
They call it that
Because they have to give it away
(237)

(Writers)
They are always pulling manuscripts out of their pockets,
And asking you to tell them, honestly—is it too daring?
(237)

(Tragedians)
The Ones Who Made Shakespeare famous. (246)

(Psychoanalysts)
Where a Freud in need is a Freud indeed,
   And we can all be Jung together
(263)

(Overwrought Dramaturgy)
Of the Play That Makes You Think—
Makes you think you should have gone to the movies.
(265)

(Married “Steppers-Out”)
They show you how tall Junior is with one hand,
And try to guess your weight with the other.
(359)

(Bohemians)
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man who solicits insurance!
(120)

(Men)
They’d alter all that they admired.
They make me sick, they make me tired.
(73)

(Past boyfriends)
The lads I’ve met in Cupid’s deadlock
Were—shall we say—born out of wedlock.
(147)

*Schultz, Charles Happiness is a Warm Puppy

by Richard W. Bray