Poetry Friday: 1927 (part 2)

I’m sorry it’s been such a quiet week—I’ve been so busy with classes, I’ve gotten nowhere with Early Autumn.  I did, though, remember to pick up a volume of poetry from 1927.  And is it an odd one.  Don Marquis wrote a book called archy and mehitabel, a collection of poems written in a distinctive style, all of them in the persona of archy, a poet who had been turned into a cockroach (for reasons I cannot quite understand).  The misadventures of archy and a cat named mehitabel make up much of the poetry…odd stuff.  I’m not sure what to make of it—is it an extended in-joke, or edgy art?  I’m curious how you’ll react, so without further ado, this is “the cockroach who had been to hell”:

listen to me i have
been mobbed almost
theres an old simp cockroach
here who thinks he has
been to hell and all
the young cockroaches make a
hero out of him and admire
him he sits and runs his front
feet through his long white
beard and tells the story one
day he says he crawled into a yawning
cavern and suddenly came on a
vast abyss full of whirling
smoke there was a light
at the bottom billows
and billows of yellow smoke
swirled up at him and
through the horrid gloom he
saw things with wings flying
and dropping and dying they veered
and fluttered like damned
spirits through that sulphurous mist

listen i says to him
old man youve never been to hell
at all there isnt any hell
transmigration is the game i
used to be a human vers libre
poet and i died and went
into a cockroachs body if
there was a hell id know
it wouldnt if youre
irreligious says the old simp
combing his old whiskers excitedly

ancient one i says to him
while all those other
cockroaches gathered into a
ring around us what you
beheld was not hell all that
was natural someone was fumigating
a room and you blundered
into it through a crack
in the wall atheist the cries
and all those young
cockroaches cried atheist
and made for me if it
had not been for freddy
the rat i would now be
on my way once more i mean
killed as a cockroach and transmigrating
into something else well
that old whitebearded devil is
laying for me with his
gang he is jealous
because i took his glory away
from him dont ever tell me
insects are any more liberal
than humans
archy

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9 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1927 (part 2)

  1. graham says:

    I’d like to think that it could be BOTH an extended joke and edgy art.

    dinsdale disagrees.

  2. Paul Hamann says:

    Not an in joke–a 100% biting and contemporary satire.

    Scopes trial: 1926.
    This poem: 1927.

    • Paul Hamann says:

      (Okay…so Scopes was 1925. But I still think my point holds.)

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Really nice observation, Paul! This is why I’m trying to do this whole thing chronologically…pick up on the shifts in American thought over time. But I hadn’t thought about how science is changing attitudes (though Arrowsmith should have got me thinking that way).

      But doesn’t it look like Marquis is despairing? Scopes was a victory for the science crowd, and drove fundamentalism underground (culturally speaking) for a generation. Why would Marquis feel, then, that it’s not just the “old simp” who believes in the supernatural, but that the young cockroaches make a hero of him and lash out vengefully against archy’s comments?

  3. Paul Hamann says:

    I’m 100% sure that scientific thinkers still felt attacked. Watching the goings-on in Dayton can’t have been pleasant, even in victory. It probably looked a lot like these cockroaches to many.

    • Paul Hamann says:

      Seriously. “laying for me with his/gang he is jealous/because i took his glory/away.” I can’t imagine a much better summation of what it felt like to be an evolutionist in 1927.

      • jwrosenzweig says:

        I see what you mean–I guess Scopes does look a bit different from a distance than it must have felt at the time. (Odd side note: Have you read the book Darwin’s great-grandson wrote about the Scopes Trial, among other things, while he was going through a midlife crisis? It’s called Trials of the Monkey–not great writing, perhaps, but a strangely compelling little memoir/reflection on science and religion.)

        I wonder, to build on your reading, if there’s an echo of WWI here. The old cockroach’s description of hell sounds for all the world like a gas attack, doesn’t it? Shades of Wilfrid Owen. And sending the underlying message that humans are not sent to hell–they create it for themselves. Do you think I’m finding allusions where there aren’t any, or is this intentional?

        • Paul Hamann says:

          Rereading it, I can’t see where the mustard gas allusion would be accidental. Whirling yellow smoke in an abyss killing everything?

          Now we have this: WWI + science = no God. I buy it.

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