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February 26, 2008

Doomsday and Muriel Stuart

Doomsday and Muriel Stuart
The BBC and National Public Radio both ran articles today on the opening ceremonies for the ‘Doomsday Vault’ – also known as the Svalbard International Seed Vault – a frozen repository buried deep within a Norwegian mountain, on the remote island of Svalbard, well north of the Arctic Circle.
The stated purpose of the project is to ensure plant diversity – and ensure against natural disasters, diseases, or climactic change that could potentially cause the extinction of plant species vital to our survival on the planet. This caught my ear, perhaps because I have noticed too many end-of-the-world movie re-runs on TV recently.
Seeds, several billion of them, will be collected from over 100 countries and stored at sub-zero temperatures behind a series of air-lock doors. The storage conditions are designed to keep even the least hardy seeds (lettuce, for example) viable for up to 50 years. More robust seeds, such as African sorghum varieties, might conceivably last thousands of years. The vegetable equivalent of immortality.

This news item reminded me of an excellent poem, written and published over eighty years ago by Muriel Stuart. Stuart, the daughter of a Scottish barrister, wrote several books of poetry, and lived most of her life in London, absorbed during her later years not with verse, but with gardening.  Her book, “Gardner’s Nightcap” was actually something of a bestseller back in 1938.
The Seed Shop, and Muriel Stuart for that matter, were ‘finds’ -  a poem and a poet that we editors did not know of previously, but were all delighted to find in the process of constructing the Poets’ Corner online collection. Typical of her style, the poem says a great deal over the course of its sixteen lines. The words explore themes of life, death, resurrection and immortality, and do if fluidly and beautifully. As Bob Blair said in an early Daily Poetry break back in October of 1998, “This is one of the poems that profitably leave almost everything unsaid, in order to concentrate on the things that will make you remember it. The diction is loose and easy; the images are exceptionally sharp and memorable; and the poem ends with an image that is at once startling and beautiful.”
This is also a good ‘reading aloud’ poem, whether it is to an audience or to yourself over lunch-hour. If your office mates stare at you oddly make sure you have an earnest expression on your face…


Here, in a quiet and dusty room they lie,
Faded as crumbled stone or shifting sand,
Forlorn as ashes, shriveled, scentless, dry-
Meadows and gardens running through my hand.
Dead that shall quicken at the call of Spring,
Sleepers to stir beneath June's magic kiss,
Though birds pass over, unremembering,
And no bee suck here roses that were his.
In this brown husk a dale of hawthorn dreams,
A cedar in this narrow cell is thrust
That will drink deeply of a century's streams,
These lilies shall maker summer on my dust.
Here in their safe and simple house of death,
Sealed in their shells a million trees leap;
Here I can grow a garden with my breath,
And in my hand a forest lies asleep.

February 02, 2008

Archy the Cockroach

Archy the Cockroach

Archy Who?  Archie was a famous cockroach-poet, the invention of Don Marquis. Don was mentioned in passing in one of last year’s columns – as a friend of Christopher Morley.

Archy, who inhabited Marquis’ office, along with his cohort Mehitabel the cat, amused himself by composing humorous free verse. Archy typed by hopping on the keys -  he couldn’t hit the shift key so everything he composed was written lower case without punctuation. Perhaps Archy’s poetic stylings – which began in 1916 and became widely syndicated  thereafter – were an influence on another lower-case writer of novel free verse – e.e. cummings. Archy claimed to be the reincarnation of a human poet, and, as his first published work explains, so was Freddy the Rat – who kept criticizing (and eating) his poems:

The Coming of Archy (1916)

expression is the need of my soul

i was once a vers libre bard

but i died and my soul went

into the body of a cockroach

it has given me a new outlook on life


i see things from the under side now

thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket

but your paste is getting so stale i can't eat it

there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have

removed she nearly ate me the other night why don't she

catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for

there is a rat here she should get without delay


most of these rats here are just rats

but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him

he used to be a poet himself

night after night i have written poetry for you

on your typewriter

and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet

comes out of his hole when it is done

and reads it and sniffs at it

he is jealous of my poetry

he used to make fun of it when we were both human

he was a punk poet himself

and after he has read it he sneers

and then he eats it


i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat

or get a cat that is onto her job

and i will write you a series of poems

showing how things look

to a cockroach

that rats name is freddy

the next time freddy dies i hope he won't be a rat

but something smaller i hope i will be a rat

in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach

i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then


don't you ever eat any sandwiches in your office

i havent had a crumb of bread

for i dont know how long

or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings

and paste leave a piece of paper in your machine

every night you can call me archy

Don Marquis, born in Walnut, Illinois in 1878, was a newspaper columnist, poet, playwright and humorist, whose editorials, poems, and cartoons appeared in the Evening Sun, the New York Herald Tribune, the New Yorker, and the Saturday Evening post from 1912 into the 1930’s. Marquis was good at inventing characters, including several animal friends for Archy and Mehitabel, and a character called The Old Soak, known for his satires against prohibition.

While known for his humor, Marquis had a difficult life in many respects. Both his first wife, Reina and his second wife, Marjorie died suddenly, and his son and daughter both died in childhood. Marquis himself suffered a series of strokes, dying from the third one in 1937 at 59. With this in mind, there is an extra poignancy to his poem, A Plan, in which he walks us through his take on the ‘ages of man’, and what he planned to do when he reached 80. More at 1poet.com

A Plan

YOUTH is the season of revolt; at twenty-five
We curse the reigning politicians,
Wondering that any man alive
Stands for such damnable conditions.
Whatever is, to us, is wrong,
In economics, life, religion, art;
The crowned old laureates of song
Are pikers, and accepted sages
Appear devoid of intellect and heart;
Continually, the ego in us rages;
Our sense of universal, rank injustice
Swells till it's like to bust us;
We love to see ourselves as outcast goats
Browsing at basement tobbledotes,
The while we forge the mordant bolt
That is to give society its jolt;
And any man who wears two eyes upon his face
Contentedly and unashamed,
And glories in the pose
And makes a virtue of his having just one nose,
We curse as dull, conventional, and tamed
And commonplace.
Thirty finds us a trifle sobered, with a doubt
Whether we'll turn the cosmos inside-out,
Reform the earth, re-gild the moon
And make the Pleiades sing a modern tune;
Some of the classics are not bores, we think,
And barbers have their uses;
We grow more choice in what we eat and drink,
Less angry at abuses;
We work a little harder, want more pay,
Grab on to better jobs,
And learn to make excuses
For certain individuals erstwhile condemned as snobs;
We do not worry nine hours every day
Because the world in its traditional, crool way     [sic]
Continues to roll calmly on and crush
The worthier myriads into bloody mush;
And yet, at thirty, on the whole,
If analyzed we still would show a trace of soul.
At forty--well, you know:
Chins, bank accounts, and stomachs start to grow;
The world's still wrong in spite of all we've tried
To do for it, and we're no longer broken hearted--
We sit on it and ride,
We're willing, now, to let the darned thing slide
Along in just about the way it stated.
Of course, we're anxious for reforms,
And all that sort of stuff,
Unless they cause too many economic storms--
But really, on the whole it's well enough:
We hold by standards, rules and norms.
But when I'm eighty I intend
To turn a fool again for twenty years or so;
Go back to being twenty-five,
Drop cautions and conventions, join some little group
Fantastically rebel and alive,
And resolute, from soup
To nuts; I'll reimburse myself
For all the freak stuff that I've had to keep upon the shelf;
Indulge my crochets, be the friend of man,
And pull the thoughts I've always had to can--
I'm looking forward to a rough, rebellious, unrespectable old age,
Kicking the world uphill
With laughter shrill
And squeals of high-pitched, throaty rage.

     Don Marquis

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