Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Wisdom of Cockroaches

Archy the cockroach - a character created by Don Marquis -  in the throes of poetic passion; drawn by Creole artist, George Herriman, known for his surreal comic strip Krazy Kat (1913-1944) - Herriman articles here and here.

"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 upon 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 cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have removed
she nearly ate me the other night
why dont she catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay"


And, so begins the saga of Archy the cockroach - a reincarnated free-verse poet - and his female sidekick, an alley cat named Mehitabel, who was the reincarnation of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra (!). Both were the creations of Don Marquis (1878-1937), a columnist for the New York newspaper, The Evening Sun, in the early half of the 20th century. Originally written as a daily column, Marquis eventually published compilations of Archy's poems - illustrated by George Herriman - in three books during his lifetime: archy & mehitabel (1927), archy's life of mehitabel (1933) and archy does his part (1935).

I just discovered Archy and Metitabel quite recently. As for Mac Tonnies - a huge fan of Kafka's Metamorphosis - it seems that he'd have caught on to the cockroach poet with the feline companion a long time ago. But, I don't think he ever did... or he would definitely named one of his own cats Mehitabel!

As it is, I'm missing Mac more than ever these days. Wouldn't you give anything to hear his thoughts on the recent Pandemic Pandemonium, possibly the most surreal "current event" that any of us have dealt with in our lifetimes? Well, that is, apart from those few existing survivors of WWII. Not that this is a war exactly, although the Big Boys in Charge would have us believe just that (see here). And, really, cats and kitties, I'd put my 2 cents in if I had the slightest clue as to what's really going on. Sadly, there are so many holes in this pandemic narrative, we'd be better off knocking some golf balls around.

Well, that is if we were able to... and not confined to our indoor habitats like so many rats in their individual cages. Which kind of reminds me of this man I met in California years and years ago. He had a whole high-rise apartment complex in his backyard composed of cages stacked on top of each other. Each cage contained a well-fed white rat... live food for his pet boa constrictors which he kept housed indoors in glass terrariums. I'd like to think this was not a metaphor for our present situation.

So, how will this nightmare play out? Will there be a tomorrow? Who can say? Meanwhile, I've posted more cockroach wisdom after the jump. Enjoy!

(Note: Admittedly, Archy's literary output is a little difficult to follow. There are no capital letters, no punctuation and his thoughts run into each other without a pause. What you need to understand is that - unlike Herriman's illustration in which Archy has a tiny typewriter of his own - Archy was using Marquis's typewriter... and had to jump on each individual key to compose his poetry. So, give this roach a break! Obviously, his output was somewhat hampered by the physical exertion demanded.)

The following two excerpt are from Marquis's first collection, archy  & mehitabel:

i once heard the survivors
of a colony of ants
that had been partially
obliterated by a cow s foot
seriously debating
the intention of the gods
toward their civilization

- Excerpt from the poem: certain maxims of archy.

we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
then to live a long time
and be bored all the while

- Excerpt from the poem: the lesson of the moth.

These are from Marquis's second collection, archy's life of mehitabel:

germs are very objectionable to men
but a germ
thinks of a man
as only the swamp
in which
he has to live

a louse i
used to know
told me that
millionaires and
bums tasted
about alike
to him

- Excerpt from the poem: random thoughts of archy.

lately i heard a number

of cockroaches discussing
humanity one big
regal looking roach
had the floor and he spoke
as was fitting in blank verse
more or less
says he
how came this monster with the heavy
foot harsh voice and cruel heart to
rule the world

- Excerpt from the poem, peace - at a price.

have just been eating
my way through some of
the books on your desk
and I have digested two of them
and it occurs to me
that antoninus the emperor
and epictetus the slave
arrived at the same
philosophy of life
that there is neither mastery
nor slavery
except as it exists
in the attitude of the soul
toward the world

- Excerpt from: archy turns highbrow for a minute.

we have a key 
to the fourth dimension
for we know the little things
that swim and swarm
in protoplasm
i can show you love and hate
and the future
dreaming side by side
in a cell
in the little cells where
matter is so fine it merges
into spirit

- Excerpt from the poem: the return of archy.

A masked kitty in China found on Histories of Things to Come.
BTW, can't get enough of COVID? LC Douglass has been on the case since January, beginning with this prescient post.

Regarding paper products...

(Note: The Addendum which originally appeared has been removed. It may return in revised form on The Other Blog. Sorry for the confusion.)


  1. This current world situation certainly displays some of the worst traits of humanity and it's just a taste of what could await. One sees the ignorance of a great portion of the population -- so smug in their scientific illiteracy. The facade begins to crack.

    A most amusing and thoughtful post. Thank you.

  2. Most amusing and most aptly posted upon the cusp of the Apocalypse! Or not. Like cockroaches, humans seem to survive everything thrown at them. I enjoyed the post. Thank you!

  3. Wonderful philosophy to be found in the musings of Archie.

  4. I love that very last line of the very last poem posted... it alludes to an organic quantum consciousness type of thing... and he wrote it in 1933.

    1. Oh I agree - it is indeed a reference to what we now consider. Reading this poetry - the man was undeniably a genius who could bring lofty intellectualism down to a cockroach level and make it universally applicable.