Clever Archy

A few weeks back I came across a reference to the stories of Archy and Mehibatel. Those names rung a bell. I recognized them as being among a long litany of literary characters cited over the years by my poetry-buff of a father. I remembered something about a cockroach and needed to know more. As always, the Internet came to the rescue, filling in all the gaps in my faulty memory.

Archy and Mehibatel were two characters originally created by Don Marquis in 1916 for his column in the New York Evening Sun. They went on to feature in several volumes of verse over the following decades. Reading through many of the poems that featured their antics, it all came back.

Archy is a cockroach that’s convinced he was a free verse poet in a former life. He discovers a piece of paper in a typewriter in the newsroom one night and begins a long friendship, via typed missives, with a journalist. His verse is primarily concerned with the daily travails and challenges of being a cockroach, doomed to view life, in his words “from the underside.” His writing is characterized by having no capital letters; he was too small to reach the Shift key. His best friend Mehibatel, one of many who appear in these stories, is a moral less alley cat claiming to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra whose motto is “toujours gai;” the perfect antagonist for Archy’s grounded worldview.

Ironically enough, I came across this verse just around the time of the first Republican Party debate. While the ostensibly innocuous conversations about life, recorded via Archy’s missives, revealed Marquis’ commentary on American society in the second and third decades of the 20th century, they suddenly struck me as quite modern and relevant to our own time, one hundred years after their creation!

The debate itself, the first round of many “matches” to come in the next 16 months, was amusing to this semi-ex-pat. Although back in Israel such confrontations do exist, they are nowhere near as colorful, vituperous and downright lively as the ones here in the States. While I don’t want to suggest that the present candidates didn’t have a lot to say about how they would each contribute to improving the life of Americans, there was enough bluster at that televised event to have provided social commentators wide and far, Archy included, plenty of fodder.

One could start with the tendency to boast, to claim that they could fix things that definitely need fixing. Archy would certainly have dismissed their pretention; as he wrote: “a louse i used to know told me that millionaires and bums tasted about alike to him.” Archy had no tolerance for bombastic behavior. In another verse he wrote that the mysterious thoughts of the sphinx were no doubt no more interesting than those “thought every day by some obscure hen.” So much for the self-importance strutted before the viewers during that first debate!


I’m with Archy—neither one of us dares to presume that our opinions are of any special value, yet, simultaneously, it’s hard to resist a comment here and there when relevant!  And indeed, reading Archy’s prose I began to understand just how much that cockroach understood about what counted back then, and in fact, what counts today. Watching certain of those Republican candidates jostle for attention, desperate to convince their audience that they could lead better than any other, I recalled a nice poem Archy left us describing a conversation with a moth who could not help but fly close to the flame that would eventually incinerate him. The need for the thrill was apparently greater than the potential price. Archy questions why he insists on behavior that in the end will lead to his obliteration, point blank asking “Have you no sense?” To this query the moth answers “plenty of it:”


but at times we get tired

of using it

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

than to live a long time

and be bored all the while

so we wad all our life up

into one little roll

and then we shoot the roll

that is what life is for


There’s something beautiful about the ambition of that moth and I’m more than a bit envious of those who are able to go for the gold, to put themselves right into the middle of the action, no matter the price. Yet there’s a flip side to such aspirations. Those who presume they can do a better job and grab the limelight (and I'm not naming names) frequently shine and command at the expense of actually doing good work. Although Archy would have been amused at the grandstanding that took place during that televised debate, (and boy was it entertaining!) he would no doubt have thought that the search for glory displayed supplanted a genuine interest in improving life back home for him and the other cockroaches. In the end he really was a clever little fellow.