The Portable Dorothy Parker was the only book of Mrs. Parker’s work in print when she died in 1967. Today readers can practically put together an entire bookshelf of work by and about Mrs. Parker. To add to this Parker Pantheon is a new book from Penguin Classics that collects almost all of her poems—both the greatest hits and the ones that should have remained on the speakeasy floor.
Complete Poems has a checkered past (more on that later) but it should be greeted with hearty applause by all fans of Mrs. Parker’s work. This is the only book that attempts to collect all of her output, from gems such as “Résumé” and “Social Note” to the decidedly less important and mediocre, including “The Bridge Fiend” and “To Elspeth.” Readers can now see the good and the bad between the same covers.
The book has a new introduction, written by Marion Meade, the biographer who revived interest in Mrs. Parker in 1988 with What Fresh Hell Is This? and has since contributed to new editions of The Portable, the play The Ladies of the Corridor and the forward to A Journey Into Dorothy Parker’s New York. A fantastic new cover with original artwork by Ken Fallin channels the spirit of Al Hirschfeld.
In her lifetime Mrs. Parker wrote more than 300 pieces of light verse, free verse, couplets, sonnets and ballads. These were published in newspapers and magazines, many of which she later collected. Mrs. Parker oversaw the publication of three slim books that collected her verse: Enough Rope (1926), Sunset Gun (1928) and Death and Taxes (1931). Almost all of these poems were collected in various other editions in her lifetime in books from the Viking Press and Random House. For perhaps the last 50 years most readers know of her work through The Portable, which Mrs. Parker released in World War II.
Complete Poems collects all of three of the above books. It also has seven others that came later, as well as a section labeled “Poems Uncollected By Parker” that has 114 more. The former is work Mrs. Parker could be proud of; the latter is work she hoped would be lost to the sands of time.
If you are reading this and saying to yourself, “Wait, I have a copy of Complete Poems. I bought it 11 years ago,” you are not mistaken. There are two different versions of this book. During the ensuing ten years between publications, there has been a competing book and a federal lawsuit that took Mrs. Parker’s name all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. (The brouhaha dragged from 2001-2007 and merits an entire section on the site. If you are not interested, skip the next four paragraphs).
Chicago native Stuart Y. Silverstein, a lawyer, author, and raconteur, pored over old periodicals on microfilm and compiled approximately 122 previously uncollected works written by Mrs. Parker. In 1994, Silverstein submitted a manuscript of his compilation to Penguin Putnam (Viking Press was sold to the company in the early 1970s and now exists only as an imprint). Penguin offered Silverstein $2,000 to publish the compilation as part of a larger collection of Dorothy Parker poems, in the idea stage at the time. Silverstein declined the offer and subsequently published his compilation through Simon & Schuster in the 1996 book Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker.
In 1999, Penguin published Dorothy Parker: Complete Poems, which includes all of the poems collected and published by Mrs. Parker in book form as well as all of Mrs. Parker’s works collected and published by Silverstein in Not Much Fun. Of these, 121 of the 122 works from Not Much Fun are collected chronologically in the final section of Complete Poems titled “Poems Uncollected by Parker.” The freelancer at Penguin who prepared this section, Colleen Breese, admitted to photocopying Not Much Fun, and then cutting the poems apart and pasting them into the manuscript for Complete Poems.
Without reproducing the entire trial transcript, which sadists can read here, Penguin lost the first round in federal court and was forced to recall the book in 2003 while the U.S. copyright case was brought to trial. In the summer of 2007 practically the entire leadership of Penguin was put on the witness stand, starting at the top of the corporate ladder with Penguin Group’s worldwide chairman and Chief Executive, John Makinson (flown in from London), David Shanks, chief executive officer of the Penguin Group (USA), Kathryn Court, the publisher, Michael Millman, the book’s editor, and Silverstein’s editor, Gillian Blake. (Note: I was the only spectator to attend the entire trial. Read my “Penguin Potshots & Silverstein Stew: Ruminations on the Parker Book Battle”). In November 2007 Penguin won the case and soon after Silverstein dropped his appeals. Since that time Penguin waited two years for the dust to settle before bringing out a revised Complete Poems on April 6, 2010.
Late last year, Silverstein released a revised edition of his book, which includes four pieces that were not in the 1996 book. During the trial these poems came to Silverstein’s attention. In the new Complete Poems, two of these four are included. Confused? Keep reading.
Complete Poems has added three pieces that were not in the previous edition of the book. All three of them, literally, took a federal case to force their way to print:
“Higgledy, Piggledy, My White Hen” is a four-line verse that Somerset Maugham mentioned in his introduction to the 1944 edition of The Portable. Since Silverstein left it out in 1994, so did Penguin. Now it is inserted into Mrs. Parker’s canon. Penguin has titled the untitled poem with its first line. In the second edition of Not Much Fun, Silverstein titled the same poem “Pecking Order (or “Eggs Tempore”)”… but this forgettable piece of dinner party banter was lightweight Parker when it was uttered, around the time Japan was steaming towards Pearl Harbor.
“Hymn of Hate: Reformers” was another “lost” poem that was found in the trial. This 1922 free verse about Prohibition is the best of the four new poems added to the book. The poem was also included in last year’s collection The Lost Algonquin Round Table. The “hate verses” are some of Parker’s best “lost” works. One improvement that Not Much Fun has over Complete Poems is that NMF places all of the “hate verses” in one section together, more than a dozen in all. The effect is quite dramatic, and much better than the way Complete Poems presents all of the “uncollected” work chronologically.
“Standardized Song-Sheet For Get-Together Meetings” is another creation of Mrs. Parker’s that came under much debate in the trial. Complete Poems collects it for the first time. It’s a parody of a song about offices and bores, and is so forgettable that 99.9 percent of Dorothy Parker aficionados will not know it. One other change to Complete Poems is the additional lines to a fairly funny ode to Hollywood, “The Passionate Screen Writer To His Love.”
The return of Complete Poems is overdue. It is a misnomer to call it complete since more than likely more pieces written by Mrs. Parker decades ago are bound to turn up. If a reader owns The Portable then picking up Complete Poems is a necessity. There are a number of excellent poems that are worth reading, such as “Life’s Valentines” and “Figures in Popular Literature” along with the “hate verses.” The introduction by Meade is a vast improvement over the one from 1999. The design and packaging are first-rate, and the book will look good in your Parker Pantheon.
Penguin Classics spent tens of thousands of dollars in court to defend Complete Poems. Your $18 investment to own this book is well worth it.