archy bugs Shakespeare.

On March 30th 2016 at Jimmy’s No 43 in Greenwich Village, New York, an event was held to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of archy, the cockroach poet invented by Don Marquis for his column ‘Sun Dial’ in The Evening Sun. Marquis, was a poet, playwright, writer of 35 novels and journalist for Harpers, Cosmopolitan, and the New York Herald Tribune. archy was a frustrated free verse poet, forced into journalism for money.

archy-blog
archy by Isaac Cates

At night, he would jump on Marquis’ typewriter keys to write satirical poems, all in lower case as he couldn’t reach the shift key, which naturally left absolutely no energy for punctuation.

This style is generally thought to be a clever literary device characteristic of ee.cummings, but as often happens in the history of invention, the originator is overshadowed by more colourful media figures, such as Cummings, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. In fact archy was the creator of many of the experimental devices now associated with the period.

archy’s language ranges from the plain grumpy :

thankyou 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 day 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

to the deliciously comic and delicately acerbic through an amalgam of poetry and straight talking prose delivered with an élan which I think of as particularly American, though I’m sure the Irish are involved somewhere along the way.

The poems take the form of polemics or ironic moral tales centred around the every-day life of the insects and animals likely to be found in a newspaper office in a cold water walk up.

i am going to start
a revolution
i saw a kitchen
worker killing
water bugs with poison
hunting pretty
little roaches
down to death
it set my blood to
boiling

There is mehitabel the cat, an alley cat, relentless party girl and lush who claims to have been Cleopatra in a former life, ( ‘toujours gai’ is her maxim) a tough urban tarantula (‘where I step a weed dies)’, an over sensitive lady-bug with artistic pretensions and, in a satire on prohibition, an Egyptian mummy whom archy calls ‘royal desiccation, reverend juicelessness’, (there’s a terrific reading of this by Sam Waterston on You Tube). Another favourite is a philosophical moth:

it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll

archy now divides his time between the Horse and Groom and the St Leonard, trying to decide whether a career in painting might make better use of his PR skills and political nous.

With the generous condescension which is a must-have in all people of genius he has agreed to share his anniversary with Shakespeare and has allowed me to print an extract from a poem revealing his special insights into the psyche of the playwright.

i remember one night when
bill and ben jonson and
frankie beaumont
were sopping it up

here i am ben says bill
nothing but a lousy playwright
and with anything like luck
in the breaks i might have been
a fairly decent sonnet writer
i might have been a poet
if i had kept away from the theatre

yes says ben i ve often
thought of that bill
but one consolation is
you are making pretty good money
out of the theatre

money money says bill what the hell
is money what i want is to be
a poet not a business man
these damned cheap shows
i turn out to keep the
theatre running break my heart
slap stick comedies and
blood and thunder tragedies
and melodramas say i wonder
if that boy heard you order
another bottle frankie
the only compensation is that i get
a chance now and then
to stick in a little poetry
when nobody is looking
but hells bells that isn t
what i want to do
i want to write sonnets and
songs and spenserian stanzas
and i might have done it too
if i hadn t got
into this frightful show game
business business business
grind grind grind
what a life for a man
that might have been a poet
…………
well says ben jonson
don t blubber into the drink
brace up like a man
and quit the rotten business
i can t i can t says bill
i ve been at it too long i ve got  to
the place now where i can t
write anything else
but this cheap stuff
i am ashamed to look an honest
young sonneteer in the face
i live a hell of a life i do
the manager hands me some mouldy old
manuscript and says
bill there s a plot for you
this is the third of the month and
by the tenth i want a good
script out of this that we
can start rehearsals on
not too big a cast
and not too much of your
damned poetry either…..

from  ‘pete the parrot and shakespeare’  in archy and mehitabel

Don Marquis was famous during his lifetime for inventing other characters: Warty Bliggins the toad, Clarence the ghost and one called The Old Soak who was the subject of a Broadway play, a silent movie and later a talkie. A film was made of archy and mehitabel called ‘Shinbone Alley’ in 1957,  too late for Marquis who had died 20 years earlier. The best known books are : ‘archy and mehitabel’, ‘archy s life of mehitabel’ and ‘archyology’ which was put together post mortem and consists of stories previously unpublished. There have been several illustrators, among them George Herriman of Crazy Kat fame, and Isaac Cates (shown here)who went on to put together Cartozia Tales ( cartozia.com) which features stories by cartoonists.

There are two websites: http://www.donmarquis.com, don marquis.org, and a facebook page.  Sam Waterston’s reading is on You Tube.  Most of Don’s prolific output can be read at: onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu  There is also the Sussex comic strip and cartoon artists association which meets in Brighton. http://www.cartooncounty.com and Hastings and 1066 Country Cartoon  Festival is on 16 October, 11.am at the Stade Hall.

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