Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Introduction: Archy and Mehitabel by Don Marquis

1) Marquis, Don. The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel. Ed. Michael Sims. New York: Penguin, 2006.

I'm citing this new anthology of "Archy and Mehitabel" poems, because the annotations are really helpful and it's the most readily accessible. You can read some of the most famous poems at This site. ("The lesson of the moth" is my favorite!)

2) Don Marquis wrote pot-boiler newspaper columns in the hey-day of newspaper columns, and his "Archy" poetry spanned from 1916 to about 1922. Turning out columns was bleeding him dry and he had trouble coming up with enough to fill the space, so he invented a guest columnist, Archy, who happened to be a vers libre poet whose soul had transmigrated after death into the body of a cockroach. Archy had trouble operating all the keys on the type-writer, of course, being a cockroach, and he couldnt' use capital letters or punctuation. This gave Marquis plenty of gimmicks to take up space with, and at one point Archy became a roaming reporter, commenting on WWI from Europe or riding around in the trouser-cuff of the former czar of Russia. (If you remember your history, the Romanovs were executed during the Russian Revolution of 1917, so Marquis was cashing in on the rumors that one of them--Anastasia, Alexei, or in this case Nicholas--had escaped.) So of course, Marquis's column was mostly made up of satire on current events. Using Archy as a columnist with a unique view from the "underside," both literally and figuratively, he also explored some deeper themes and actually accidentally made capital-L Literature out of the ramblings of a fictional poetic cockroach.

3) This book is the most dog-eared and underlined book I own. I keep returning to it, and I definitely think it deserves more publicity and acknowledgment as a real classic. In Archy, Don Marquis created the most odd, endearing character. He's really an all-encompassing every-man sort of character both in spite of and because of the fact he's a cockroach. It really plays into the smallness that everybody feels sometimes. In fact, Marquis really identified with Archy and seems to frequently have spoken through him. As a guest columnist in Marquis's column, Archy was the starving artist with higher aspirations and Marquis was the big mean boss-man, reversing the role and oppression Marquis frequently felt in his career as a newspaper writer. What I'm trying to get at, I guess, is that Archy is a bug with ambition, frequently thwarted, but doing the best with what he has. And there's something in that that I think a lot of us can relate to.

4) I'm going to make kind of a leap here and say that Archy and Mehitabel is comparable to "The Hitchhikers" by Eudora Welty we read in the short stories unit. There aren't a whole lot of really obvious surface similarities--a compilation of free verse poetry written by a cockroach and a short story about a truck driver? What I'm thinking of is the kind of working class sensibility. Both Archy and Tom are pretty isolated and have seen better days. They're both kind of down on their luck and trod on by the greater workings of society. We get the information that Tom used to be a musician, and it's still something he yearns after, though. It seems something a little incompatible with his truck-driving, though, and is a kind of symbol of everything he's lost or lacking. Archy also has artistic aspirations which are extremely at odds with his status as a cockroach, yet he doggedly pursues them. Typing on a type-writer means leaping and bashing his head on the keys, but he keeps at it with a superhuman effort. So while Tom's is a story of not being able to break out of a mold, Archy's is more optimistic and expresses the possibility of transcending limitations.

No comments: