Whitman vs. Parker – or the Coming of Age of the Heterosexual Relationship

When I am not reading I am sometimes writing about what I read. This has happened mostly in the academic confinements of university and I will post some of those papers here. The following was my first try at academic writing:

Whitman’s Words

“A Woman Waits For Me” – as part of Walt Whitman’s most famous work Leaves of Grass it appears in the chapter “Children of Adam”. It consists of 8 stanzas, or rather 8 sentences, of different lengths. Whitman uses the same or similar words for the beginning of each line in the stanzas, which gives it fluency despite the lack of rhymes. The repetition of certain words meanwhile stands in stark contrast to the excessive use of adjectives and verbs. While the subject in the first five stanzas changes with each new stanza Whitman’s dominant male “I” is taking over for the remainder of the poem.

“I” – as Horace Traubel, a close friend to the poet, writes in his introduction to Leaves of Grass – is not Walt Whitman himself but every man, John Smith as well as Joe Average. It is the male American, a concept which is not entirely reduced to someone living in America. Whitman obviously had a very abstract idea of the “I” as well of “America”, but one can surely assess that the lyrical “I” is not female. There is a masculinity about it that defines Whitman’s idea of the perfect man living in a perfect democracy, surrounded by perfect companions – who also happen to be men.

The “I” in the poem discussed, though, turns to women for the sexual act and one can easily imagine the procedure, not only by the words used to describe it but by the tone in which they are written down. One-syllabic words, numerous adjectives, and short part-sentences make one feel involved in the actual act, there is a breathlessness about these stylistic methods. But there is also a technicality about the words used for the act that makes it seem mechanical more than sensual as if it were an act of reproduction – including metaphors of harvesting – rather than something both would enjoy as lovers.

There is no enjoyment; there is no love within the lines. Although Whitman perceives love as part of sexual intercourse and actually utters the three little words “I love you”, they seem to come as an afterthought or as a contradiction to the sexual act, as he puts a “but” before them. They seem to be an excuse for the aggressiveness of the sexual act as it is described in the poem and for the necessity of reproduction.

According to Whitman, an Encyclopaedia the women in the poem “possess markedly masculine traits” – namely that they “swim, row, ride, wrestle, shoot, run, strike, retreat, advance, resist, defend themselves” – but would those not be traits that women of their time and hardship in live would be expected to have. Or is this merely a not too subtle indication towards Whitman’s homosexuality which is so pronounced in other poems but seems to stand in direct contrast to “A Woman Waits For Me”? I do not think that Whitman chose those words to emphasize the fact that he adored “masculine traits” in women but rather described facts of life.

However, there is a certain ambiguity – or maybe it is hypocrisy – in the way women are perceived by the lyrical “I”. “They are not one jot less than I am” seems to indicate the acceptance of equality between men and women which is contradicted by “I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you” which sounds condescending to the modern female ear. “I listen to no entreaties” makes it almost seem like a rape. There is certainly a passiveness about the women who wait for him. And the title also bears an archaic idea of relations between men and women where the woman does the waiting while the man is out hunting, or working. And although the woman in this sentence is the acting subject the focus lies on the man, because he is the one she is waiting for, he gives her action (and consequently life) meaning.

Does this mean, then, that Walt Whitman was a sexist? Probably not, till he acknowledged women’s fight for equality as part of social changes that were bound to happen. But although he was ahead of his time in perceiving women equal to men there is a certain white, gay, male arrogance in his work that idealizes comradeship between men to the exclusion of comradeship between the sexes or among women. Could it be that he saw limitations in the “weaker sex” that put limitations to their ability to gain equality? Did he therefore see women as equal only in the extend he saw them able to attain equality?

Parker’s Poetry

“General Review of the Sex Situation” certainly is a long title for such a short poem, but it seems to emphasize the importance of the topic while the shortness of the poem seems to ridicule both the importance as well as the topic. There is an undeniable ambiguity at work here that underlines the duality as well. With or against each other; does the poem pinpoint an old discussion to its essentials or does it mock those who think it is worth discussing? And what with the conclusion, which is no conclusion at all?

Parker’s meter and rhyme seem to belie the complexity of her work. They lull the reader into a security that makes the cynical outcome of each poem even more unexpected. In this case one expects a conclusion to the dilemma that befalls men and women, a romantic moral declaring that despite – or because of – their differences men and women are meant to be. But Parker refuses to give into expectations.

While the desires and behaviors of the heterosexual male and female are quite stereotypical, they are also flippantly contrary to each other, especially since the second lines which complete the rhymes answer with a kind of carelessness towards the poetic first lines. One could therefore speculate that the different tones used for the genders also characterizes them: that women are romantics at heart, earnest in their desire to love someone, while men are just in for the fun and will vanish as soon as the sun rises on the horizon. The different tones in which the lines are written is not the only thing that separates them, the semicolon acts as a fine border between the sexes that makes their difference distinct, even if Parker shrinks away from making the separation complete by using periods. This adds to a more formal literariness in Parker’s poetry that calls for easy-to-read-rhymes and the result could be a second line that aims to please. Both methods effectively drive a wedge between the sexes and the everlasting myth that their every desire can be fulfilled by the other.

An effect Dorothy Parker may not have asked for is the willingness of female readers to interpret the poetic language of the female line as true: “well for me the poem dorothy Parker wrote is that, it tells about how woman gave importance to love… while less men gave importance to it… hmmm.. women are martyrs….” (1), “I think that author is trying to say that women are more committed to a relationship than men do. That we women give everything we have for our loved ones. She says too that men get tired of the woman they have and that’s why they have extramarital relationships. That’s the way I see it.” (2) are two random comments that reflect the common interpretation of the poem. These readers do not realize that as much as Parker criticizes men for being untrue, she also criticizes women for being too romantic. The poetic language in this case is a device to underline her sarcasm towards female romanticism not praise thereof. “Love is woman’s moon and sun;” and “Woman lives but in her lord;” are over-the-top-phrases that mock themselves and love poetry.

Two Testimonies

If Sappho founded lyrical love poetry and Shakespeare perfected it where do Whitman and Parker fit into the history of it all? And do they fit in at all? While Whitman held women in high esteem, he much rather passed his time with and words on men; Parker had been scorched by love so frequently that she looked at it with a cynical eye and a shrewd quill. Still both dwelt upon the topic again and again, unable to pull away from the lure of the most common theme in poetry. How is it possible to exhaust oneself on a topic without exhausting the topic itself?

Maybe the answer lies in the different approaches Whitman and Parker take upon this genre. The “good gray poet” refuses to describe women in their beautiful glory, does not dwell on the feel of their skin or their smell or their softness. To him it all comes down to his manly duty to “graft the grafts of the best-beloved of me and America”, to “distil [the drops] upon you [that] shall grow fierce and athletic girls, new artists, musicians, and singers”. Love clearly pales in direct comparison with the mere act of producing children, a new generation of Americans to seek democracy.

In contrast Parker establishes a kind of un-love poetry that focuses on the has-been lovers more than on the current happiness of being in love. While many a poet would describe the courting and consummation of love, Parker would start where the romantic tale ends. Her prince cheats on the princess; her damsel in distress is the bespectacled girl men tend to ignore.

There is no sentimentality towards love in either poem still the heterosexual institution is held upright in both poems. While Whitman fulfills it by producing new generations of boys and girls, Parker simply ignores a conclusion that would seem obvious to any homosexual reader. But maybe there is room for a homosexual interpretation in both poems, because neither excludes it. With Whitman it is maybe too obvious that where love is lacking between a heterosexual couple there can always be love between persons of the same sex – as other examples of his work indicate. In Parker’s poem the contrasting behaviors towards love seem to keep men and women apart, the conclusion therefore would be to bring those together who agree in their outlook upon love: members of the same sex. Not that reality could uphold this utopian view, women cheat on women despite the stereotypical proclamation that “woman wants monogamy”, while there may be the occasional gay man who clings to his partner despite Parker’s assessment of men being easily bored. There is a certain willingness to adept to and adopt the influence of homosexual movements during the times both poets lived in even if it is not the central image.

Of course, there is always the possibility to reduce the heterosexual relationship to sexual intercourse or as Katharine Hepburn once put it: “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” A comment that may not only be typical of the actress but also of the time she lived in. “Modern Love”, as it was proclaimed by Vanity Fair, was unwilling to suppress the ideals and innovations that were closely interwoven with the independence of the “New Woman” and Hepburn as well as Parker lived this new ideal.

So, “What earthly good can come of it”? If even the poets among us give up on love who else is there to sing its praise? And is the heterosexual relationship condemned to be extinct? The answer would probably lie in the fact that as twisted and shrewd as Whitman and Parker observe love their poetry is still about love. Even if we lament over the absence of love, there is still the knowledge or maybe just the hope that love exists. The mere fact that people can get their hearts broken is testimony to the fact that they have loved. It never gets old and we never tire of talking, writing, crying, lamenting, and arguing about love. Failure in matters of the heart is just no option.

(1) Comment by “Lynike from Philippines” on http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/parker/12502/comments

(2) Comment by „Laritza Sanabria Maisonave“ on http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/parker/12502/comments


Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, ed. Horace Traubel (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.)

Dorothy Parker, Enough Rope, (New York: Sun Dial Press, 1926)

J. R. LeMaster et al., eds., Walt Whitman An Endyclopedia (New York : Garland Publishing Inc., 1998)

Bryan K. Garman, “‘Heroic Spiritual Grandfather’: Whitman, Sexuality, and the American Left, 1890 – 1940,” American Quarterly 52.1 (2000) 90-126

Nina Miller, “Making Love Modern: Dorothy Parker and Her Public,” American Literature 64.4 (1992) 766-784

“Analysis and comments on General Review of the Sex Situatioin – A poem by Dorothy Parker”, American Poems, 8 Jan. 2008 <http://americanpoems.com/poets/parker/12502/comments&gt;.