Archy, Thou and I

Jeanne MatthewsJeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide.  Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound.  Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier.   Bet Your Bones and Bonereapers are available at bookstores everywhere and the fourth in the series, Her Boyfriend’s Bones, will be out in June 2013.

I just finished my fourth book in the Dinah Pelerin mystery series and, mentally exhausted from my labors, I’ve been thinking a lot about Archy.  For those of you who don’t know Archy, he is a fictional cockroach and a writer of considerable insight and wisdom.  His observations on art and life can be found in a book called The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel.

In a former life, Archy was a human being and a vers libre (free verse) poet.  However, a snafu in the transmigration of his soul caused him to be reincarnated into the body of a cockroach.  Inconvenient as this condition is, expression remains the cry of his soul and at night, when the newspaper office where he lives shuts down, he jumps onto an old manual typewriter, hurls his little body against the keys at terrible cost, and pours out his heart on matters great and small.  Archy can’t press two keys at once to operate the shift, so he uses no capitalization and punctuation is similarly beyond his ability.  But in his sufferings to produce words and his single-minded determination, Archy is the inspiration of every struggling writer, just as he was the alter ego of his creator, Don Marquis.

E.B. White said of Archy, “The details of his creative life make him blood brother to writing men.  He cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward.  So do we all.  And when he was through his labors, he fell to the floor, spent.  He was vain (so are we all), hungry, saw things from the Jeanne Matthews Archyunder side, and was continually bringing up the matter of whether he should be paid for his work.”  And when his labors were finished and his force spent, the question that haunted Archy is the question that haunts all writers, “Is the stuff literature?”

By day, Marquis ground out a column for the New York Sun and by night, he wrote poetry that never gained the respect of the serious poets or literati.  This dearth of praise and acceptance depressed Marquis.  He was by nature a gloomy man for whom writing came hard in a time when expectations ran high and every single day he faced a deadline.  Newspaper columnists in the 1920s were expected to be scholars and Renaissance men.  Marquis churned out his daily columns on schedule, but with increasing desperation.  Like me trying to dream up a subject to blog about that hasn’t already been blogged to death, Marquis racked his brain and tore out his hair.  When he hit finally upon the idea of Archy as his narrator, it allowed him to riff on any subject from beer to Bonaparte without sounding pompous or pedantic.

Spiritualism wafted through the air of that era like pollen.  Everyone (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) wanted to contact somebody “on the other side.”  And free verse was all the rage.  Archy and his dissolute feline pal, Mehitabel, captured the Zeitgeist perfectly.  Mehitabel had fallen on hard times in karmic terms.  She had inhabited the person of Cleopatra in a previous existence, but now in her ninth life, she has been cruelly reborn Bonereapersinto the scuzzy anatomy of an alley cat.  Despite this comedown, Mehitabel is irrepressible.  She is a free spirit, declaring that it’s “one life up and the next down, but always a lady through it all and a good mixer, too.”  And Archy, who wants to write sonnets and songs and Spenserian stanzas, broods that he might have done it but for the “grind grind grind.”  His innate resistance to that grind moved him to organize the Worms Turnverein.

Some years ago, my husband and I were touring through rural, southwestern France and every few miles we saw signs that read “Vers à Vendre.”  Verse for Sale?  Sure, this was France, land of Rimbaud and Verlaine and chansons d’amour.  Even so, we couldn’t believe that so many farmers in this remote corner of the country could be poets and that they supplemented their income by selling their verse to passersby.  Did one just stop off, ask to look at a fellow’s chapbook, and make him an offer?  What if you didn’t care for his rhyme or his meter or the too-reckless freedom of his verse?  Would that be awkward?

After many miles and much speculation, we realized that the word vers also means worms.  We were in fishin’ country.  The signs advertised bait.  Still I couldn’t help but wonder.  How many unfulfilled poets are there out there?  How many for whom expression is the cry of their souls?  Judging from the flood of books and articles and poems and blogs, we must number in the millions.  We’ve got a gazillion words to sell and the grind grind grind of the publishing biz drives us to produce more and more, faster and faster.

Vers à vendre.  But who among us does not worry and fret?  Is the stuff literature?

ah archy

thou and i

Jeanne Matthews Arch and Mehitabel