Stack of books

The Next Chapter: Archy and Mehitabel, An Appreciation

I am still knee deep in Victorian Literature and loving The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins but I want to move forward in time to New York City in 1916. That’s when the newspaper The Evening Sun published a series of poems written Archy, a cockroach. Later the poems were collected in the book Archy and Mehitabel, the brainchild of journalist, poet, novelist, and playwright Don Marquis.

Archy, who types his poems every night on a newsroom typewriter, is a cockroach who in his former life was “a verse free bard”. He can’t use the shift key on the typewriter, so there are no capital letters in his poetry. His best friend is Mehitabel, an alley cat who thinks she the reincarnation of Cleopatra and says “whotthell” and “toujours gai” a lot. As Archy points out, the poems are about life “from the under side”. They are illustrated by George Harriman, who drew the wonderful Krazy Kat comic strips.

The poems are a great satirical look at life post World War I. “warty bliggens the toad ” is about an egotistical toad who thinks he is the center of the Universe. ” a spider and a fly” is a conversation between a fly caught in a web begging for his life and a spider who wants to eat him. “the hen and the oriole” is a meditation on beauty. “ghosts ” explains how souls are “transmigrated” into lower animal forms.

I was first introduced to the poems through a book I owned on satire. I was familiar with the concept of satire through the songs of Tom Leher and shows like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Reading the poems by Archy kindled my interest in satire as well as narrative poetry. It would be a while before I wrote satirical poems, but I definitely think that Archy and Mehitabel are an influence on my poetry. That’s why when I posted a photo of my copy on Instagram and 3 people asked about it, I felt compelled to blog on the poems.

Some of the newspaper readers were curious how Archie used the shift to make a new line. This, of course, did not interest the literary cockroach. Archy maintained “the main question is/ whether or not the stuff is/literature or not”. That is not a question I can answer but I hope that people read the poems and enjoy them for the clever satire they are. I hope people who aren’t familiar with the poems, find a copy and read it. Whotthehell!