Don Marquis and the Underwood Bard
Updated: Nov 1, 2022
This piece first appeared on the Charlie Foxtrot Vintage website journal in 2021.
‘Writing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.’ —Don Marquis
If anyone needs proof that the writing profession or even avocation, to paraphrase Bette Davies, is not for pussies, one only need to read the life of Donald Robert Perry Marquis, creator of the original typewriter poet.
Born in 1878 in Walnut, Illinois, Marquis (pronounced ‘MAR-kwes’), in a short life abbreviated by recreational vices and overwork, produced thirty-five books, five of them plays, and two newspaper columns. As with many successful writers of the era, he also spent a miserable year as a screenwriter in Hollywood, proving Fred Allen’s point that Tinsel Town ‘is a great place, if you’re an orange.’ Fame in his lifetime was such, a WWII Liberty ship was named USS Don Marquis in his memory.
Marquis’ most celebrated creation is Archy the cockroach, into whom the soul of a vers libre (free verse) poet has transmigrated. Marquis begins his mythology of Archy by writing that at first he thought the poems appearing were the work of a ghost in his machine. But every night after the newspaper office was locked up, driven by the hunger to express himself, Archy emerged from the shadows. He composed poetry by jumping off the top of Marquis’ typewriter (an Underwood 5?), hitting each key with his head. Archy wrote all in small case, with no punctuation, because he wasn’t heavy enough to depress the shift or punctuation keys.
Archy, illustrated by the marvellous George Herriman, brings to vibrant, unforgettable life the hard-knock world of the first third of an American 20th century—the Great War, the Depression, Prohibition, which ‘makes you want to cry in your beer and denies you the beer to cry into’—with wit and irony. He speaks of his comrades, though most of his acquaintanceships are prickly: Warty Biggins, a toad convinced (like some people) the world was made for him, and a boastful lightning bug the gang christens Broadway.
In one of his best poems, a flame-seeking moth explains to Archy that moths in their quest for happiness are cavalier with existence: ‘come easy go easy / we are like human beings used to be before they became too civilised to enjoy themselves’. Archy would prefer a longer life with less excitement, but wishes he wanted something as badly as the moth wants to fry himself.
There’s another poet in the building, Freddy the rat, also once human, who sniffs at Archy's poems before eating them. As in a former existence when they were rival poets, Freddy shows his disdain because he’s jealous of Archy's work. This echoes Matt Groening’s dictum that the best way to annoy a poet is to be another poet.
And then there’s Mehitabel the cat. A party animal armed with the twin philosophies ‘toujours gai’ and ‘wotthehell’, a pioneer feminist, she’s convinced she’s the reincarnation of Cleopatra, her artistic ambitions held back by ‘one damn litter after another’. O Archy, she cries, the mansions and palaces I’ve been thrown out of. One day, fine wine and ball-gowns, the next, trashcans and bones. Archy faithfully records Mehitabel’s adventures both in past lives and present. And as his reward, she tries to eat him. A comment on the pitfalls of a life in literature?
Corybantic Mehitabel, who considers herself ‘always a lady’, was the first point of contact I made with the work of Don Marquis back during my own travails as a fish out of water in 1970s California. I find her even more of an inspiration now, at age 65, when her belief that there’s ‘a dance in the old dame yet’ has even more resonance in a culture that believes life ends when youth does. It’s also more romantic than ‘age is only a number’.
Many great artists owe their USP, unique selling point, that darling of publishing cartels, to if not chance, then imperfection. Alan Rickman’s beautiful voice, instantly recognisable, was formed by a childhood speech impediment that prevented him moving his jaw properly. Vincent Van Gogh’s bold and original use of colour was produced by the deterioration of his mental health.
The Archy poems were perfect for the newspaper column Marquis otherwise struggled to fill. His sparky little typewriting insect and pals appeared in books, magazines, in songs and on LP s, and a 1957 Broadway musical, Shinbone Alley. Modern riffs on Marquis' works continue to appear in the 21st century. The work might be all but forgotten today; but over a century after Archy’s debut, the cockroach poet’s philosophies still resonate on a planet ‘cluttered up with automobiles and politicians’. Marquis underlines in bold the timeless truth of Pascal’s ‘plus ça change’: the more things change, the more they remain the same.
We all need inspiration from time to time. Who better than Archy? Typewriter titan, fearless, tough, and compassionate, if tired: of limitations, of hiding from Mehitabel, of the shortcomings of humanity. And what better inspiration than using an expertly-restored vintage typewriter, which teaches us patience, tolerance, and to learn to love the imperfect.