Jul. 29, 2002

Pity the Poor Spiders

by Don Marquis

MONDAY, 29 JULY 2002
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Poem: "pity the poor spiders," by Don Marquis from Archy & Mehitable (Random House).

pity the poor spiders

i have just been reading
an advertisement of a certain
roach exterminator
the human race little knows
all the sadness it
causes in the insect world
i remember some weeks ago
meeting a middle aged spider
she was weeping
what is the trouble i asked

it is these cursed
fly swatters she replied
they kill off all the flies
and my family and i are starving
to death it struck me as
so pathetic that i made
a little song about it
as follows to wit

twas an elderly mother spider
grown gaunt and fierce and gray
with her little ones crouched beside her
who wept as she sang this lay

curses on these here swatters
what kills off all the flies
for me and my little daughters
unless we eats we dies

swattin and swattin and swattin
tis little else you hear
and we'll soon be dead and forgotten
with the cost of living so dear

my husband he up and left me
lured off by a centipede
and he says as he bereft me
tis wrong but i ll get a feed

and me a working and working
scouring the streets for food
faithful and never shirking
doing the best i could

only a withered spider
feeble and worn and old
and this is what
you do when you swat
you swatters cruel and cold

curses on these here swatters
what kills off all the flies
me and my poor little daughters
unless we eats we dies

i will admit that some
of the insects do not lead
noble lives but is every
man s hand to be against them
yours for less justice
and more charity


It's the birthday of Alexis de Tocqueville, born in Paris (1805). He came to America when he was twenty-six to study American's prison system, which was then considered one of the most humane and enlightened in the civilized world. The friend he came with did eventually write a book about prisons, but de Tocqueville is remembered now for his study Democracy in America, a book which looked at the character of democracy in the United States following the Revolution. Students who take up the book today are often surprised by the freshness of Tocqueville's descriptions.

It's the birthday of Chang-Rae Lee, born in Seoul, Korea (1965). He won a Hemingway/Foundation award for his first novel, Native Speaker (1995), and three more fiction prizes for his second, A Gesture Life (1999). New Yorker magazine included him on its list of the "Twenty Best Writers Under Forty."

It's the birthday of Chester Himes, born in Jefferson City, Missouri (1909). Himes was serving a twenty-year sentence for grand larceny when he published his first short stories in Esquire. They brought him only temporary fame; he was still forced to work as a ditch-digger when he was released. He published If He Hollers Let Him Go in 1945 to warm reviews, but the book didn't sell well. His second novel, Lonely Crusade, received universally bad reviews. In despair, Himes followed other black expatriates to Paris. There he met an editor from the French publishing house Gallimard. They had started a series of dark detective novels, and he told Himes: "Get an idea, start with action, somebody does something -- a man reaches out a hand and opens a door, light shines in his eyes, a body lies on the floor... We don't give a damn who's thinking what -- only what they're doing... Don't worry about it making sense. That's for the end. Give me 220 typed pages." Himes started writing a series about the Harlem detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, who shielded murderers they knew were blameless and returned the savings of innocent people who had been swindled.

It's the birthday of Stanley Kunitz, born in Worcester Massachusetts (1905). His term as Poet Laureate ended just recently. When he has to appear at state functions, he wears a tuxedo he bought seventy-five years ago; it still fits him.

It's the birthday of Don Marquis, born in Walnut, Bureau County, Illinois (1878). He wrote a column for the New York Evening Sun for many years, aided by a cockroach named Archy. Archy, an anxious, hard-working character, typed poems and essays in Marquis' office after Marquis had gone home, operating the Remington typewriter by jumping up and down on the keys. There were never any capital letters in Archy's writing; he was unable to hold down the shift key while he jumped on the other keys. "The main question is," Archy wrote, "whether the stuff is literature." Although Marquis' own life was marred by tragedy-he outlived both of his children, and died broke-Archy and Mehitabel remained popular for decades, and collections of the columns are still in print. Marquis himself cultivated the image of a curmudgeon, and once compiled a list of all the things he hated: "Roquefort cheese, Wordsworth's poetry, most musical comedy, public banquets, physical exercise, toy dogs, poets who wear their souls outside, organized charity, magazine covers, and the gas company."

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