Don Marquis and Archy's "a spider and a fly"

For those who don’t know Archy, he was the cockroach poet who used the typewriter of his “boss,” Don Marquis, a columnist for the New York Sun from 1916 into the 1930s, in order to type out his poems, which then became the fodder for Marquis’s highly popular Sun Dial column. Together with his sidekick, the cat Mehitabel (she claimed to have been Cleopartra in a previous life), Archy discoursed on all manner of subjects, using only lower-case letters and no punctuation (because of his difficulty in operating the shift key). In our new Pocket Poets edition, The Best of Archy and Mehitabel, we reproduce E. B. White’s introduction to a 1950 volume collecting Marquis’s Archy columns, in which he writes, “The creation of Archy, whose communications were in free verse, was part inspiration, part desperation. It enabled 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….Vers libre was in vogue….It was the time of ‘swat the fly,’ dancing the shimmy, and speakeasies. Marquis imbibed freely of this carnival air, and it all turned up, somehow, in Archy’s report. Thanks to Archy, Marquis was able to write rapidly and almost (but not quite) carelessly. In the very act of spoofing free verse, he was enjoying some of its obvious advantages.”

a spider and a fly

i heard a spider
and a fly arguing
wait said the fly
do not eat me
i serve a great purpose
in the world

you will have to
show me said the spider

i scurry around
gutters and sewers
and garbage cans
said the fly and gather
up the germs of
typhoid influenza
and pneumonia on my feet
and wings
then i carry these germs
into the households of men
and give them diseases
all the people who
have lived the right
sort of life recover
from the diseases
and the old soaks who
have weakened their systems
with liquor and iniquity
succumb it is my mission
to help rid the world
of these wicked persons
i am a vessel of righteousness
scattering seeds of justice
and serving the noblest uses
it is true said the spider
that you are more
useful in a plodding
material sort of way
than i am but i do not
serve the utilitarian deities
i serve the gods of beauty
look at the gossamer webs
i weave they float in the sun
like filaments of song
if you get what i mean
i do not work at anything
i play all the time
i am busy with the stuff
of enchantment and the materials
of fairyland my works
transcend utility
i am the artist
a creator and a demi god
it is ridiculous to suppose
that i should be denied
the food i need in order
to continue to create
beauty i tell you
plainly mister fly it is all
damned nonsense for that food
to rear up on its hind legs
and say it should not be eaten

you have convinced me
said the fly say no more
and shutting all his eyes
he prepared himself for dinner
and yet he said i could
have made out a case
for myself too if i had
had a better line of talk

of course you could said the spider
clutching a sirloin from him
but the end would have been
just the same if neither of
us had spoken at all

boss i am afraid that what
the spider said is true
and it gives me to think
furiously upon the futility
of literature

Excerpt from THE BEST OF ARCHY AND MEHITABEL © 2011 by Everyman’s Library. Excerpted by permission of Everyman’s Library a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Click here to learn more about Don Marquis’ The Best of Archy and Mehitabel.