William Palmer on Don Marquis, archy and mehitabel, Slightly Foxed Issue 72

the cat who was cleopatra

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In the 1920s, some of the more daring modernist poets further liberated their already metre-free verse by abandoning capital letters and conventional punctuation. One unfortunate poet had little choice. His diminutive size and the configuration of his limbs determined the way in which he was forced to write. Here he is, working at night on a typewriter in a deserted newspaper office:

He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downwards, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters and he had a great deal of difficulty in operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started . . . After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted.

The piece of paper left in the machine is examined. It reads:

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 upon life

This is how Don Marquis introduces his creation Archy – or ‘archy’ as the typing cockroach is forced to describe himself. Most cockroaches are tough little creatures, but Archy soon reveals himself as sensitive, rather anxious and bullied by another ex-poet, now reincarnated as a rat, who is jealous of Archy’s work and ‘after he has read it he sneers/ and then he eats it’.

But Archy has seen that the man who uses the typewriter during the day is interested in what is left in his machine overnight and is encouraged by this new audience: ‘i will write you a series of poems showing how things look’. These are the comic poems that make up archy and mehitabel, first published in 1927, and largely concerning Archy’s friendship with a female cat, the magnificent if rather battered and g

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About the contributor

William Palmer ’s latest book, In Love with Hell, a study of alcohol in the lives and work of eleven writers, was published earlier this year. The illustrations in this article are by George Herriman.

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