Tuesday, 29 July 2008

egyptian queens, vers libre poets and ... wotthehell

Don Marquis was born 130 years ago today in Walnut, Illinois, and died on 29th December 1937.

He is best-known for creating the all-lower-case poems of archy the cockroach, perhaps inspired by the loftier aspirations of e e cummings and rainer - oops! - Rainer Maria Rilke.

Marquis takes a swipe at theosophy (trendy in the early years of the twentieth century) and the belief of its founder, Madame Blavatsky, in reincarnation, in the introduction to the collected poems.

He goes on: "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 machiine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just suffient to operate the amchine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a greate 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 beofroe so that all this work had 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 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 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 whe is supposed to be for

Mehitabel the cat reveals to Archy that she was Cleopatra in a former life, though the poems she has Archy transcribe for her reveal a salty turn of phrase, "wotthehell" appearing frequently (though she is also "toujours gai").

The complete "the lives and times of archy and mehitabel" is well worth looking out for, especially as it includes the illustrations of another cult figure, George Herriman.

The collection should be dipped into, as with most poetry collections. However, my acquisition of the complete volume thirty years ago coincided with a long period of bed rest, and I read the whole volume at a stretch. It has to be said that the carefree verses of the early years are gradually replaced by gloomier thoughts, culminating in rather isolationist opinions, presumably dating from the early thirties. At the very end, the poetry returns, and is more philosophical. The final words could be prophetic (my italics):

men talk of money and industry
of hard times and recoveries
of finance and economics
but the ants wait and the scorpions wait
for while men talk they are making deserts all the time
getting the world ready for the conquering ant
drought and erosion and desert
because men cannot learn

rainfall passing off in flood and freshet
and carrying good soil with it
because there are no longer forests
to withhold the water in the
billion meticulations of the roots

it wont be long it wont be long
till earth is barrne as the moon
and sapless as a mumbled bone

dear boss i relay this information
without any fear that humanity
will take warning and reform

But I prefer to think of Mehitabel's enduring optimism:

but wotthehell do i care
i neithe whine nor fret
what though my spine is out of line
there s a dance in the old dame yet

No comments: