Monday, November 7, 2011

The guts of the living

Auden famously said in his elegy to Yeats that "the words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living," and like so much else Auden wrote and said, this was taken as an abstraction rather than actual poetry. There's no question that poets digest, in a really visceral way, the works of certain other poets who are special to them; Louise Gluck described this as "feeding" on the work of particular poets, then moving on. But some poets we never move on from; for me that list includes Auden, Yeats, Pound, Frank O'Hara, Frank Stanford, Robert Lowell, Milton, Hart Crane, J.H. Prynne, Hopkins, John Clare, Traherne, Delmore Schwartz, the best of Patrick Kavanagh, Bishop, Marianne Moore, May Swenson, Charlotte Mew, and lots of others. But the first poet I truly fell in love with was... archy, pictured here on the typewritter (to the astonishment of a cat named mehitabel). You can see that he's a cockroach, and he's quite literate, having literally digested a few works in his time. A cockroach, you exclaim? Well, let me explain. In 1916, the humorist Don Marquis, who had a daily newspaper column in The New York Sun, had an unusual experience at his typewriter, narrated here in the customary editorial first-person plural:

We came into our room earlier than usual in the morning, and discovered a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys. He did not see us, and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.

Congratulating ourself that we had left a sheet of paper in the machine the night before so that all this work had not been in vain, we made an examination, and this is what we found:

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 upon 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 cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night why dont she
catch rats that is what she is supposed to be fore
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 wont 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

dont you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i haven't had a crumb of bread for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste and leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy


Talk about Lunch Poems!

Well, here we have the embodiment of modernist free verse: the end of the each line marks, as we know from the word "verse," a turn; the term originates in the Latin word versus, which denotes what you do when you are ploughing your field... you reach the end, turn around, and make another furrow! Here, archy struggles with the carriage return at the end of every line, and positions with exquisite care every letter (prefiguring E.E. Cummings) by using his own head - literally - to press the keys. Above all, archy's story is emblematic of the ur-trope of all modernism: a human being... a writer... wakes to find himself an insect.

Marquis invented many other things in his own writing career, but to his eventual dismay, archy and his Jezebel-like colleague, mehitabel, came to outlast them all. The archy poems, collected in book form in several volumes, have always been in print - and were even illustrated by the remarkable George Herriman, who is perhaps more famous for his own creation, Krazy Kat.

Many moons ago, I did some research on Don Marquis and compiled an annotated bibliography of previously uncollected archy and mehitabel pieces - quite a large number of them had appeared not only in newspapers, but in a variety of long-vanished popular magazines. That bibliography was duly supplied to a number of people who were then compiling work by and about Marquis, though my work was never acknowledged by any of them in print. This used to bug me, no pun intended - but as archy himself put it so laconically, fate is unfair. No matter: he will always be my first poet-love, and his example serves as a chastening warning to anybody trying to write his or her own verse: we run the risk of reincarnation, so... watch out!!

If this has whetted your, well, appetite, I recommend finding the lovely old Doubleday collections, found in many a used bookstore (if there still are any near you) - or the in-print Michael Sims' The Annotated archy and mehitabel and Everyman "best of" selection.

Anyway, here's my favorite archy poem:

freddy the rat perishes

listen to me there have
been some doings here since last
i wrote there has been a battle
behind that rusty typewriter cover
in the corner
you remember freddy the rat well
freddy is no more but
he died game the other
day a stranger with a lot of
legs came into our
little circle a tough looking kid
he was with a bad eye
who are you said a thousand legs
if i bite you once
said the stranger you won t ask
again he he little poison tongue said
the thousand legs who gave you hydrophobia
i got it by biting myself said
the stranger i m bad keep away
from me where i step a weed dies
if i was to walk on your forehead it would
raise measles and if
you give me any lip i ll do it
they mixed it then
and the thousand legs succumbed
well we found out this fellow
was a tarantula he had come up from
south america in a bunch of bananas
for days he bossed us life
was not worth living he would stand in
the middle of the floor and taunt
us ha ha he would say where i
step a weed dies do
you want any of my game i was
raised on red pepper and blood i am
so hot if you scratch me i will light
like a match you better
dodge me when i m feeling mean and
i don t feel any other way i was nursed
on a tabasco bottle if i was to slap
your wrist in kindness you
would boil over like job and heaven
help you if i get angry give me
room i feel a wicked spell coming on
last night he made a break at freddy
the rat keep your distance
little one said freddy i m not
feeling well myself somebody poisoned some
cheese for me im as full of
death as a drug store i
feel that i am going to die anyhow
come on little torpedo don t stop
to visit and search then they
went at it and both are no more please
throw a late edition on the floor i want to
keep up with china we dropped freddy
off the fire escape into the alley with
military honors


the unreliable narrator said...

Thank you for this....I only ever knew "the lesson of the moth" from some anthology or another. His social commentary is scathingly understated; Monsieur Squandermania has indeed digested this thoroughly.

Prynne, really?! What do you like best by him? I attended his infrequent lectures whilst at Cabbage....Geoff's positively extroverted by comparison.

the unreliable narrator said...

Oh and CHARLOTTE MEW. Tis but a stair betwixt us, oh! my God! etc. SWOON.

Ms Baroque said...

Ah, thank you thank you thank you. Pete the Parrot and Bill Shakespeare spring to mind,

... i said
you must have known
shakespeare know him said pete
poor mutt i knew him well
he called me pete and i called him
bill but why do you say poor mutt
well said pete bill was a
disappointed man and was always
boring his friends about what
he might have been and done
if he only had a fair break

I can remember reading this aloud to my mother in the kitchen in, oh, sixth grade... Archie, a very early love of mine. I think it was through Archie that I first learned the term "vers libre." And I once found a very beautiful stray cat in the garden and adopted her and called her Mehitabel. She was a great cat. (We called her kittens Ink and spot, but that's a different story.)

Anonymous said...

I had a teacher in Jr High who assigned us some archy poems & they made quite an impression on me.