How Dorothy Parker Poems Got Me Through My Break Up

Much like ice cream, extreme haircuts, and untagging yourself from cutesy couple photos, the post break up book is an integral part of getting your life back together. Choosing which book to read after a break up is an intensely personal process. First, you must reach the point where your tears have subsided enough that you can actually make out words on a page. Next, you must find a secure reading spot, where no well-meaning friends or family can disturb you and where your occasional relapse into sobbing will be fairly muffled. I suggest all post-break-up reading take place in a bathtub with a glass of wine, or while lying on the floor of a college dorm room surrounded by used tissues.

Then, of course, you must choose the exact right book. You might go with Junot Diaz's This is How You Lose Her, if you're trying to lean into the sadness. Or Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, if you are considering framing your ex for murder. Or a warm and fuzzy childhood classic like Harry Potter, if you just want to forget about grown-up problems for a while and hang out with wizards instead.

For me, though, it's always been Dorothy Parker. 

I should clarify. When I say that Dorothy Parker got me through my break up, I mean that Dorothy Parker helped me through the two years during which my social life consisted primarily of break ups. My college boyfriend and I broke up about once every couple of weeks (because the key to any good relationship is consistency). During our "off" periods, I spent my time having my heart crushed into a fine powder by other straight male friends (including some straight male friends who turned out to be gay). They always seemed startled when I mistook their interest in hooking up with me for a romantic interest of any kind.

I would then return to my original ex-boyfriend, opting for the emotionally dysfunctional devil I knew, and start the cycle over again.

It took me over half of college to learn that a clean shot to the head is the best way to end a relationship. Shooting it in the leg and watching it die slowly over the next four semesters is not as good.

It took me over half of college to learn that a clean shot to the head is the best way to end a relationship. Shooting it in the leg and watching it die slowly over the next four semesters is not as good.

Did Dorothy Parker help me come to this realization? Not at all. She was, however, the acerbic answer to my prayers. I can't remember when I first found Dorothy — I'm sure that my father recommended her to me, along with George S. Kaufman, Harpo Marx, and the rest of the Algonquin Round Table, and I'm sure that I didn't listen. I know that her one-liners always made me laugh, though. Eventually I found a collection of her poetry online, and I was intrigued by the titles: Parties: A Hymn of Hate, or Superfluous Advice, or Words of Comfort to be Scratched on a Mirror.

The poems were simple. They usually rhymed. And they all had the same biting sense of humor:

I do not like my state of mind;
I'm bitter, querulous, unkind.
I hate my legs, I hate my hands,
I do not yearn for lovelier lands.
I dread the dawn's recurrent light;
I hate to go to bed at night.
I snoot at simple, earnest folk.
I cannot take the gentlest joke.
I find no peace in paint or type.
My world is but a lot of tripe.
I'm disillusioned, empty-breasted.
For what I think, I'd be arrested.
I am not sick, I am not well.
My quondam dreams are shot to hell.
My soul is crushed, my spirit sore;
I do not like me any more.
I cavil, quarrel, grumble, grouse.
I ponder on the narrow house.
I shudder at the thought of men....
I'm due to fall in love again. 

None of her poems were pretty or comforting. Here was a woman writing in the 1920s and '30s, unabashedly bitter about love, but still capable of laughing at her own heartbreak. I bought a second-hand copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker after break up number two.

The book was not just poetry, but short stories, articles, and book reviews. I liked A Telephone Call in particular. The story is written as a woman's stream of consciousness, as she waits for a call from her lover:

I won't telephone him. I'll never telephone him again as long as I live. He'll rot in hell, before I'll call him up. You don't have to give me strength, God; I have it myself. If he wanted me, he could get me. He knows where I am. He knows I'm waiting here. He's so sure of me, so sure. I wonder why they hate you, as soon as they are sure of you.

I'll go ahead and claim that there is no other piece of writing in the English language that comes closer to expressing the despair of being a 19-year-old girl who wants to text a boy she's "hanging out with," but is afraid of coming across as "clingy" or "not chill." Dorothy Parker, who was born in 1893, felt the same way (please pass this on to all the old people who think that texting has ruined dating, because dating has always been ruined). And Dorothy Parker knows that it's silly. She understands that worrying so much over a text or a phone call or attention from an unworthy man is ludicrous. Hence the sarcastic pitch to her writing. But, she also knows that the feelings are real, no matter how silly. 

There is no other piece of writing in the English language that comes closer to expressing the despair of being a 19-year-old girl who wants to text a boy she's "hanging out with," but is afraid of coming across as "clingy" or "not chill."

No matter how much we tell ourselves that the cheating cads who broke our hearts aren't worth the effort (and they're not), it does no good to stifle our feelings about it. You can know that you deserve better and still allow yourself to be legitimately sad, at least for a little while.

I should add that Dorothy Parker was more than a divinely acid-tongued writer. She was a lifelong civil rights activist. She left her estate to Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP, and to this day she has a memorial garden at the headquarters of the NAACP in Baltimore (which features the epitaph she wrote for herself: "Excuse My Dust"). She's proof that you can be hilariously sad and still find time to stand up for justice.

She's proof that you can be hilariously sad and still find time to stand up for justice.

I appreciated her legacy, even as a heartbroken college freshman. But it was her writing I turned to after every heartbreak. Lying on my dorm room bed, ignoring my creative writing homework, weeping unsteadily over the same jerk, her writing would make me smile:

I'm of the glamorous ladies
At whose beckoning history shook.
But you are a man, and see only my pan,
So I stay at home with a book. 

I know that being bitter is not a long-term solution. As much fun as it is to wallow and eat Nutella straight from the jar, staying cynical forever rarely helps. It certainly doesn't make you feel like running out and falling in love again. But there's something to be said for letting those vitriolic feelings run their course. You can't go from a break up straight to romance novels and daily affirmations (or at least, I can't).

I needed someone who would tell it to me straight: love is garbage, and you're going to be sad. You'll probably continue to make the same mistake, and be even sadder about it each time, because you should have known better. But we can laugh about it. Because that's the only thing that's going to make you feel a little less sad.

I needed someone who would tell it to me straight: love is garbage, and you're going to be sad.

I mean, if you can't laugh at your desperately broken heart, what can you laugh about? 

After far, far too long, I managed to claw my way out of the endless cycle of break ups. I can't say that Dorothy Parker's poems got me to that point single-handedly, but I can say that she helped me hold onto some semblance of sanity during a low point in my life. 

Now, I can still enjoy Dorothy's wry wit, and her charming pessimism. I still flip through my Portable Dorothy Parker when I need a wisecracking friend to commiserate with. But now I appreciate the glimmer of hope that can be found, even in her most deadpan of poems:

Four be the things I am wiser to know:
Idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe.

Four be the things I’d been better without:
Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt.

Three be the things I shall never attain:
Envy, content, and sufficient champagne.

Three be the things I shall have till I die:
Laughter and hope and a sock in the eye.

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