Jul. 3, 2007

The Coming of Archy

by Don Marquis

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Poem: "The Coming of Archy" by Don Marquis from Archy & Mehitabel. © University of New England Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Coming of Archy

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 can't eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night 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

most of these rats here are just rats
but this rat is like me he has a human soul in him
he used to be a poet himself
night after night i have written poetry for you
on your typewriter
and this big brute of a rat who used to be a poet
comes out of his hole when it is done
and reads it and sniffs at it
he is jealous of my poetry
he used to make fun of it when we were both human
he was a punk poet himself
and after he has read it he sneers
and then he eats it

i wish you would have mehitabel kill that rat
or get a cat that is onto her job
and i will write you a series of poems
showing how things look
to a cockroach
that rats name is freddy
the next time freddy dies i hope he won't be a rat
but something smaller i hope i will be a rat
in the next transmigration and freddy a cockroach
i will teach him to sneer at my poetry then

don't you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i havent had a crumb of bread
for i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of playwright Tom Stoppard (books by this author), born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia (1937). He had planned to become a war correspondent, but after eight years of writing all kinds of general interest articles, he fell in love with the theater and began to focus on drama criticism. He became so obsessed with drama that, at one point, he reviewed 132 plays in seven months. He eventually decided to try writing plays himself.

He produced his first one-act play in 1965 and went on to write a series of radio plays and a few television scripts. And then, he decided to write a play that would tell Hamlet from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In Stoppard's version, they spend the play worrying that their lives have no meaning, and it's only by participating in Hamlet's story that they find any purpose. The play was called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), and it made Stoppard the youngest playwright ever to have a play staged by the National Theatre in London. He was just 29 years old. When it premiered in New York, Stoppard was asked what the play was about. He said, "It's about to make me rich."

It's the birthday of the novelist and short-story writer Franz Kafka (books by this author), born in Prague (1883). From an early age, Kafka was obsessed with his own guilt. He was constantly terrified that someday the teachers would realize their mistake and give him a failing grade. At night, he came home and listened to his father pronounce judgments on all subjects and people. In a letter he later wrote to his father, but never sent, Kafka said, "From your armchair, you ruled the world.... [And] I lost the ability to talk." Kafka grew increasingly shy, anxious, and miserable.

After law school he got a job at an insurance company, where he was responsible for finding ways to prevent industrial accidents. He was actually quite good at it, and it's estimated that he prevented thousands of factory deaths in Prague. But even though he had a good job, he continued to live at home with his parents. He wrote at the time, "I would be incomparable happier living in a desert, in a forest, on an island, rather than here in my room between my parents' bedroom and living room."

And then, on the night of September 22, 1912, Kafka sat down at his desk and wrote nonstop, from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m., finishing in one sitting a short story called "The Judgment." He considered the story his first real literary success, and over the next few years he began to produce the stories that made his name, including "The Metamorphosis" (1915), about a man who wakes up to find he's become a giant insect, and "In the Penal Colony" about a machine that kills criminals by inscribing the name of their crime on their skin.

It was only in the last year of his life that Kafka found happiness with a woman named Dora he met at a Jewish holiday camp. People who knew him at the time said that he finally lost all his anxiety, became funny and cheerful. Kafka wanted to get married that year, but he died of tuberculosis. His last two novels, The Trial (1925) and The Castle (1926), were left unfinished.

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