Talking animals abound in fairy tales and children’s literature, in Aesop’s fables and comic books, but only rarely do they inhabit poetry. Yet, in an era when human impact on the natural world is of pressing concern—we are in the midst of a human-induced mass die-off of flora and fauna, a biodiversity crisis known as the Sixth Extinction—poetry’s capacity to embody animal perspectives seems increasingly urgent. When animals are not merely spoken of but speak directly to us in poems, what should we humans hear?
One answer comes from an unlikely source: Don Marquis, a newspaper columnist who was also one of the most radical—and unsung—ecopoets of the last century. Marquis achieved fame writing for New York dailies in the 1920s, part of a generation of hard-bitten male journalists churning out preposterous lengths of column inches.
The archetype of the grizzled reporter hunched over his typewriter is why Marquis came to my attention in the first place. I’m a typewriter aficionado who uses an ultraportable Smith-Corona to compose poetry on demand with the Chicago-based Poems While You Wait, and customers have long recommended Marquis’s work to me. It’s right in my wheelhouse, they say, because Marquis’s protagonist, Archy, is a New York City cockroach and reincarnated vers libre poet who types at night in an empty newsroom, his nimble insect body leaping across the keys. Because Archy can’t operate the shift key, his entire oeuvre consists of unpunctuated lowercase lines. (He fantasizes about one day writing his life story in all caps if he can find someone to help him lock the shift.) Archy’s frenemy is a scrappy alley cat named Mehitabel, a creative free spirit who lives by her wits and claims to be the reincarnation of Cleopatra.
Whenever a patron—usually an older gentleman—enthused to me on the subject, I smiled and jotted down the names of both Marquis and his characters, only to set the suggestion on the back shelf of my brain. The work sounded clever but also kitschy and quaint, like flagpole sitting or the Lindy Hop—a nostalgic relic no longer germane to life in the 2010s. Besides, the men who buttonholed me always insisted that Marquis was hilarious. I was leery about how the humor might have aged or whether it catered to the stereotypes of its era (T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, anyone?). I treated these animal-voiced poems as a quirky footnote to my interest in typewriters, something I might or might not get to eventually.
At least, that’s what I’d done until this past fall, when my spouse and I needed couple’s costumes for a literary-themed Halloween event. Archy and Mehitabel pushed their way to the top of my mind. Who doesn’t love a cat at Halloween? And plenty of people find cockroaches scary. Before we committed to the outfits, though, I felt obligated to read the work lest we pay inadvertent homage to something disreputable.
Despite my fear that Marquis’s poems might be dated and stale, they startled me with their allusions to economic, gender-based, and racial inequality and their takedowns of humankind’s assumed dominance over Earth. In his 1919 poem “This Monster Man,” Marquis depicts Archy as a full-throated cockroach revolutionary, declaring, “one thing the human bean / never seems to / get into it is the / fact that humans / appear just as unnecessary to / cockroaches as cockroaches / do to humans.” Archy goes on to wonder “how came this monster with the heavy / foot harsh voice and cruel heart to / rule the world” before adding that “had it been dogs or cats or elephants / i could have acquiesced and found a / justice working in the decree.” He concludes that to be ruled by “man / gross man / the killer man the bloody minded / crossed unsocial death dispenser of this / sphere who slays for pleasure slays / for sport for whim” is an intolerable circumstance worthy of overthrow.
The astute yet innocent observations of his animal protagonists permit Marquis to throw his voice and smuggle in blunt, progressive social critique that would seem ham-fisted otherwise. Marquis’s anthropomorphism also invites readers to consider human behavior from the critical distance imparted by a cat and a cockroach who see firsthand what strange and hypocritical creatures people can be.
In the 1927 poem “Mehitabel and Her Kittens,” for instance, Archy recounts a visit from his cat compatriot (who has “purposely avoided / matrimony in the interests / of the higher life”) and her latest batch of unwanted offspring. She confides to Archy that “the life of a female / artist is continually / hampered what in hell / have i done to deserve / all these kittens,” adding
but it isn t fair archyit isn t fairthese damned tom cats have allthe fun and freedom
The poem concludes with “a dark mystery” brooding over the sudden disappearance of the kittens in question. “when i asked / her about them,” Archy observes, “she said innocently / what kittens.” Although contraception, abortion, and the chronic devaluation of female artists’ work (all taboo topics in the 1920s) are not explicitly mentioned, the poem stands as a tragicomic monologue on the injustices women face. Mehitabel’s feminist cri de coeur hits the mark because the cat-and-cockroach perspectives infuse the anger with humor, letting the argument operate implicitly.
The abjectness of Marquis’s animal points of view is more than a gimmick, though, particularly when it comes to examining humanity’s hubris and ecological devastation. Consider the 1920 poem “The Wisdom of Archy”:
as a representativeof the insect worldi have often wonderedon what man bases his claimsto superiorityeverything he knows he has hadto learn whereas we insects are bornknowing everything we need to knowa louse iused to knowtold me thatmillionaires andbums tastedabout aliketo him
As editor Michael Sims writes in his introduction to The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel from 2006, literary satire tends to belong to two main categories: Horatian or Juvenalian. The Latin poet Horace “comes across in his satires as mildly amused by his fellow human beings, shaking his head in a will-they-ever-learn sort of way,” whereas his successor Juvenal “is distinctly not amused.” Rather, “his satires are born in outrage; he is as morally offended as a television evangelist.” Marquis, Sims notes, “employs both styles, sometimes in the same poem,” a complexity that elevates his work beyond mere topicality because “when craft lifts the protest into art, it has a chance of surviving.”
Marquis’s own literary survival belies his humble roots. Born in the village of Walnut, Illinois, in 1878, he began his star-making work at the New York newspaper The Sun in 1912. There he spent more than a decade writing a daily column, “The Sun Dial,” which introduced Archy and Mehitabel on March 20, 1916. In 1922, Marquis departed for the New York Tribune (later rechristened the New York Herald), where he continued the adventures of his iconic characters in another daily column, “The Lantern.” He published roughly 40 books of poetry, fiction, drama, and nonfiction during his career but is best remembered today for his Archy and Mehitabel poems and sketches, which have never gone out of print since they first appeared in book form in 1927.
Marquis, according to his biographer John Batteiger, was “one of the most quoted writers in Manhattan in the 1920s, when New York’s literary scene was reaching its zenith,” and “the great humor writers who came soon afterward—Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber—considered Marquis a New York icon.” Prolific and acclaimed across multiple genres, Marquis was a three-time finalist for the O. Henry Memorial Prize for short fiction and was awarded a medal by the Mark Twain Society. In 1943, six years after his death, the U.S. Navy even christened a Liberty cargo ship after him: the USS Don Marquis.
E.B. White, who knew a thing or two about compelling animal characters and who acknowledged Marquis as an inspiration for Charlotte’s Web, wrote a glowing introduction to the 1950 anthology The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel. Praising Marquis’s output—“It is funny, it is wise, it is tender, and it is tough”—he concedes that the author was “never quite certified by intellectuals and serious critics of belles lettres.” White speculates that Marquis came up with the roach-verse approach partly out of inspiration and partly out of desperation. The form permitted Marquis “to use short (sometimes very, very short) lines, which fill space rapidly, and at the same time it allowed his spirit to soar while viewing things from the under side, insect fashion,” White writes. Not a bad tactic when one is tasked with filling 23 column inches six days a week.
Composed during the tumultuous teens and Roaring Twenties, the poems are packed with the vogues and slang of World War I and the speakeasy era, as in “A Loyal Allied Cootie” (1918), in which Archy tells Marquis, “sir you stated in the / sun dial the other day that archy / was to lead an army of potato / bugs into germany to eat the / crop you have been / misinformed.” But there’s also a timelessness to the poems given their recurrent indictment of humankind’s solipsism and arrogance. Or, as Michael Sims describes the theme, “human life was a mess and always had been … greed and ignorance destroyed the civilizations of the past and probably will destroy the current ones.”
Archy and Mehitabel occupy a liminal position when it comes to the binaries of humans versus wildlife and civilization versus nature. Marquis’s readership was principally urban, and the two characters he created are animals whose fates are entangled with the fortunes of their human counterparts. They, like Homo sapiens, reproduce rapidly and adapt with relative ease to even the most adverse circumstances. And, like pigeons, they prefer to live alongside us to subsist off our refuse. In a sense, they’re also here because of us—they don’t thrive in forests or tundras, prairies or savannahs; they thrive in cities. Turn Mehitabel loose in the woods, and coyotes will feast upon her. Turn her loose in the city, though, and she’ll do OK and perhaps cultivate a poetic appreciation of the environment’s dingy allure. She might even sing a song about it, as she does in “Mehitabel Dances with Boreas”: “moon you re as cold as a frozen / skin of yellow banan / that sticks in the frost and ice / on top of a garbage can.”
These poems—with their oblique, non-human perspectives on social and cultural issues—gain exigency and rhetorical force as humans’ ecological impact becomes harder to ignore. We live in a geological era that scientists have named the Anthropocene, in which human activity causes widespread irreversible damage to other species and to Earth itself. German scientists, for example, recently released a 27-year study concluding that the number of flying insects in Germany has decreased 75 percent over the last three decades. Around the world, pollinators are vanishing, bird populations are in decline, and wildlife is endangered. Food chains are unstable. A statistic reported in the Atlantic is even more sobering: wildlife now accounts for only 3 percent of the biomass on the planet (which includes all organisms), with humans, livestock, and domestic pets taking up the remainder.
Marquis seemed well aware of the environmental ruin that humans wreak. The image of the tiny yet persistent cockroach in the darkened office after man has gone, hopping over abandoned tools and technologies, is an arresting premonition of a post-human future. One of the most chilling instances of Archy’s futile warnings is the 1935 epistolary poem “What the Ants Are Saying.” Archy reports to Marquis the gossip among the ants:
it wont be long now it wont be longman is making deserts of the earthit wont be long nowbefore man will have used it upso that nothing but antsand centipedes and scorpionscan find a living on itman has oppressed us for a million yearsbut he goes on steadilycutting the ground from underhis own feet making deserts deserts deserts
Marquis composed this poem during the Dust Bowl, in which human failures—over-cultivation of the land and a lack of dryland farming—collided with drought to create an environmental disaster. But Archy considers all human history and geography, from the Gobi Desert and the Sahara to Egypt and Babylon, arguing that man “uses up the fat and greenery of the earth / each generation wastes a little more / of the future with greed and lust for riches.” The terrifying and absurd repetition that “it wont be long now it won’t be long / till earth is barren as the moon / and sapless as a mumbled bone” builds until Archy concludes with the zinger: “dear boss i relay this information / without any fear that humanity / will take warning and reform.”
In “On Lyric Poetry and Society,” the German philosopher Theodor Adorno writes “it is only through humanization that nature is to be restored the rights that human domination took from it.” Marquis, given more to a comedy of dyspepsia than of sanguinity, probably would have questioned whether anything can be restored. Yet, through his anthropomorphism, he invites readers to consider the porousness of the boundaries between people and animals. He reminds us that we humans are just beasts ourselves, fated to live and die like all the rest on this third planet from the sun. All human hierarchies, competitions, and hypocrisies fall away before Archy’s critiques. After all, a cockroach capable of human syntax and semantics presents a surreal occasion for reevaluating our illusions of invincibility.
In “Archy Hears from Mars,” extraterrestrials reach out to the roach by radio because humans proved too hard to contact. Upon their request that he tell them about his planet, Archy explains:
[… ] it isround like an orangeor a balland it is all clutteredup with automobilesand politiciansit doesn t know where it isgoing nor whybut it is in a hurryit is in charge of atwo legged animal calledman who is genuinelypuzzled as to whetherhis grandfather was a godor a monkey
As Marquis’s friend and sometime collaborator Christopher Morley writes in a May 1937 column in the Saturday Review, the roach and the cat, “by their humble station in life, and the lowliness of their associates, proved an admirable vantage for merciless joshing of everything biggity.”
This tactic recurs in “the big bad wolf,” a poem from 1935 in which Archy, having just seen the movie The Three Little Pigs, muses that “it is no wonder that the edible animals / are afraid of wolves and love men so” for “when a pig is eaten by a wolf / he realizes that something is wrong with the world / but when he is eaten by a man / he must thank god fervently / that he is being useful to a superior being.” This proto-animal-rights critique has grown all the more withering in a world where, per an essay in Aeon , “more than 63 billion terrestrial animals and, by very conservative estimates, more than 103 billion aquatic animals are killed for human consumption every year.”
it must be the same waywith a colored man who is being lynchedhe must be grateful that he is being lynchedin a land of freedom and liberty
The bug’s eye view allows Marquis to render such scathing judgments with pathos that would be less powerful if it came from a world-weary man instead of a quizzical insect. After Archy expresses his gratitude that “our wall street robber barons / and crooked international bankers / are such highly respectable citizens / and do so much for the churches / and for charity,” he admits that at times he gets discouraged enough to “contemplate suicide / by impersonating a raisin and getting devoured / as part of a piece of pie.” As is the case in the current era of “Make America Great Again” sloganeering, Archy’s America was not hospitable to minorities or cockroaches. But, he adds, he needs simply to think of “our national blessings” and how he has read lately that it is “a great period in which to be alive.”
The period in which we now read these nearly century-old poems is not the greatest. Even the most sober climate change data and predictions are terrifying. Think about these statistics from NASA : “Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner. Effects that scientists had predicted in the past would result from global climate change are now occurring: loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise and longer, more intense heat waves.” Although he head butted the keys of Marquis’s typewriter generations ago, Archy’s risky and progressive poems remain resonant and will likely become ever more prophetic.
“expression is the need of my soul,” Archy types in his first-ever appearance in Marquis’s column, and Batteiger says that Marquis himself possessed “a progressive heart and an increasingly cynical soul.” Whatever our fate as humans may be—whether transmigration in the manner of Archy and Mehitabel or extinction, like so many other forms of life on Earth—we can find much to marvel at in the expression of Archy’s soul: an insect whose moral righteousness and clarity rebuke our equivocation and denial.
When Marquis died at age 59, a few days after Christmas in 1937, E.B. White recollected the humorist as “one of the saddest people of our generation.” His outraged yet fatalistic opposition to injustice reads as even more oracular now than it did when he was alive. Marquis might have been whistling in the dark, but one must find something to do as the darkness descends. If we have to die either way, then we might as well go amused.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...