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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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