Today, August 22, is Dorothy Parker’s birthday. One of the most prominent literati of the Jazz Age, Parker was a poet, writer, critic, satirist and political activist. Quite the character in real life herself, she continues to inspire many fictional characters and movie/TV portrayals.
She is also one of those poets who falls in and out of fashion with each generation. Often, she is dismissed as someone who wrote light verse. Or, as someone who had many axes to grind and, therefore, as rather tedious. And, of course, there was her political leaning that troubled (perhaps, still does) many. But, pretty much everyone who has read some of her works at length cannot help but agree on how she was a fine observer of human nature and captured the many shades and idiosyncrasies very aptly through her writing.
This particular poem is one of her rare, longer ones. It is fairly well-known because of how it takes certain common behaviors and stereotypes and practically skewers them in signature Parker style. Her ability to take the everyday and seemingly innocent or mundane behaviors of people at parties and in social situations and meticulously dissect them while adding liberal doses of sarcasm and wit stands well even today and would not be out of place in a contemporary stand-up comedian’s patter.
The first thing that always strikes me about this poem after re-reading it is how the opening and ending two lines — the refrain, if you will — is really quite a contradictory statement because, given this poem itself, I’d say parties brought out the best of Parker’s skills that we value her for today: her acute observation of people, her skill with language and her sharp, biting wit.
The poem’s speaker describes four specific kinds of gatherings: the Novelty Affair (the equivalent of themed parties today); the Bridge Festival (card games); the Day in the Country (the picnic); the informal little Dinner Party (small get-togethers). That she spends more time describing the latter two allow us to infer that Parker herself must have found herself going to those kinds of social events more over others. Each gathering description ends with an italicized line that is a direct, and rather droll, response or reaction of the poem’s speaker.
Though there isn’t too much to analyze deeply here, the joy in reading Parker is to both picture the images and behaviors that she presents to us and chuckle as we recognize both parts of ourselves as well as people we know. And, despite the world-weary air that the poem’s speaker tries to portray, we also get a sense of her irrepressible glee in capturing and memorializing these particular kinds of individuals and their behaviors in these social settings.
Also, it comes through plainly how, even then, parties and social events were, often, carefully planned and choreographed so that there was a fair bit of uniformity in terms of “accepted behaviors”. This, clearly, is what the poem’s speaker abhors more than anything. There is practically no spontaneity described here. People go about happily repeating themselves and others. And, while this kind of social mirroring of actions and words is one way to connect and bond with others, such conviviality, of course, kills any possibility of something truly interesting and worthwhile from happening at such gatherings.
Yet, in the end, one can tell that the poem’s speaker is not intending to throw in the towel and swear off going to these parties, even if they do bring out the worst in her. There is something that still fascinates, still draws her in. If nothing else, the opportunity to do some more people-watching.
Oh, and the Elwell mentioned in line 36 is Joseph Bowne Elwell, An aficionado of card games, particularly bridge, he was shot dead in his locked home. His murder was never solved but is understood to have something to do with his love of cards.
Parties: A Hymn of Hate
I hate Parties;
They bring out the worst in me.
There is the Novelty Affair,
Given by the woman
Who is awfully clever at that sort of thing.
Everybody must come in fancy dress;
They are always eleven Old-Fashioned Girls,
And fourteen Hawaiian gentlemen
Wearing the native costume
Of last season’s tennis clothes, with a wreath around the neck.
The hostess introduces a series of clean, home games:
Each participant is given a fair chance
To guess the number of seeds in a cucumber,
Or thread a needle against time,
Or see how many names of wild flowers he knows.
Ice cream in trick formations,
And punch like Volstead used to make
Buoy up the players after the mental strain.
You have to tell the hostess that it’s a riot,
And she says she’ll just die if you don’t come to her next party—
If only a guarantee went with that!
Then there is the Bridge Festival.
The winner is awarded an arts-and-crafts hearth-brush,
And all the rest get garlands of hothouse raspberries.
You cut for partners
And draw the man who wrote the game.
He won’t let bygones be bygones;
After each hand
He starts getting personal about your motives in leading clubs,
And one word frequently leads to another.
At the next table
You have one of those partners
Who says it is nothing but a game, after all.
He trumps your ace
And tries to laugh it off.
And yet they shoot men like Elwell.
There is the Day in the Country;
It seems more like a week.
All the contestants are wedged into automobiles,
And you are allotted the space between two ladies
Who close in on you.
The party gets a nice early start,
Because everybody wants to make a long day of it—
The get their wish.
Everyone contributes a basket of lunch;
Each person has it all figured out
That no one else will think of bringing hard-boiled eggs.
There is intensive picking of dogwood,
And no one is quite sure what poison ivy is like;
They find out the next day.
Things start off with a rush.
Everybody joins in the old songs,
And points out cloud effects,
And puts in a good word for the colour of the grass.
But after the first fifty miles,
Nature doesn’t go over so big,
And singing belongs to the lost arts.
There is a slight spurt on the homestretch,
And everyone exclaims over how beautiful the lights of the city look—
I’ll say they do.
And there is the informal little Dinner Party;
The lowest form of taking nourishment.
The man on your left draws diagrams with a fork,
Illustrating the way he is going to have a new sun-parlour built on;
And the one on your right
Explains how soon business conditions will better, and why.
When the more material part of the evening is over,
You have your choice of listening to the Harry Lauder records,
Or having the hostess hem you in
And show you the snapshots of the baby they took last summer.
Just before you break away,
You mutter something to the host and hostess
About sometime soon you must have them over—
Over your dead body.
I hate Parties;
They bring out the worst in me.
~ Dorothy Parker, ‘The Complete Poems‘