Don Marquis — Forgotten Genius

Sometime in my very early twenties, near the beginning of the 1970s, someone turned me on to Don Marquis and his 1910s/1920s stories about Archy the cockroach, a writer of free verse, and Mehitabel the alley cat who thought she was a reincarnation of Cleopatra.

Archy would supposedly leave poems on Marquis’ desk that the cockroach typed by jumping up and down on the keys. There were never any capital letters or punctuation because he couldn’t use the shift key.  Here is a typical poem “The Wisdom of Archy“:

as a representative
of the insect world
i have often wondered
on what man bases his claims
to superiority
everything he knows he has had
to learn whereas we insects are born
knowing everything we need to know
a louse i
used to know
told me that
millionaires and
bums tasted
about alike
to him

In “Archy Hears from Mars,” extraterrestrials reach out to the roach by radio because humans proved too hard to contact. Upon their request that he tell them about his planet, Archy explains:

[… ] it is
round like an orange
or a ball
and it is all cluttered
up with automobiles
and politicians
it doesn t know where it is
going nor why
but it is in a hurry
it is in charge of a
two legged animal called
man who is genuinely
puzzled as to whether
his grandfather was a god
or a monkey
I was reminded to re-read these wonderful works by an article in the Poetry Foundation by Kathleen Rooney who tells the story of Marquis far better than I ever could.
It would be marvelous if another generation of young readers could be captivated  by this brilliant writer.



4 Responses to Don Marquis — Forgotten Genius

  1. Dorothy Barkley says:

    I grew up with Archie and Mehitabel. It had been a favourite of my grandmother’s, then my mother’s older sister, my Mom and finally down to me. I have it still. It is cherished.

  2. Jo Dunaway says:

    Just looked — Archie and Mehitabel is not on my bookshelves, so it must be in one of the boxes in my locker. I would not have given it away! Thanks for the memory.

  3. I missed Marquis, only hearing about A & M from Christine who grew up with the books in Australia. Wonderful poetry!

  4. tdurrie says:

    Yes! I recently reread Archy and Mehitabel after many years. Marquis’s wonderful writing has been in my memory for over 70 years. The characters are unforgettable. Toujours gai, Archy!

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