Somewhere near the beginning of the semester, I tell my students the story of Don Marquis, a newspaper journalist who came into his office one morning to find a strange letter in his typewriter. The letter was from archy, a cockroach who claimed he was the reincarnated soul of a Roman poet who writes in free verse. I pass out copies of the letter and ask for reactions. Of course, the students say there are no capital letters or punctuation, and I explain the laborious way in which archy composes his poems. He stands on the space bar and dives headlong into the keys to make them work. Since he can’t be in two places at once, he can’t operate the shift key, and he leaves out punctuation as one less key to have to manipulate.
A few students have insisted, like the walrus-mustached Oral Interpretation professor I once had, “This is not poetry!” Sometimes I have trouble myself concocting a defense. Several of Mehetibel’s (a cat who was Cleopatra once in a former life) poems do have a definite rhythm and sound qualities. These are fairly dependable poetry-appreciation-starters, although for youngest audiences, I censor out some of the passages when Mehitebel hitchhikes to Hollywood and takes up with a coyote along the way who is so tough, the resulting kittens are born wearing spiked collars. I received a parent call once about Mehitibel’s poem that ended with Mehitibel’s motto: “Toujours gay, toujours gay, what the hell, what the hell.” I also received a call from a mother who said her son had told her he had read poems written by a cockroach at school today…she wanted to know, “what the hell kind of crap I was ‘feeding’ her kid.”
Granted this method is gimmicky, but it is a “grabber” and a painless place to start. Students discover that poetry does not have to rhyme, that it does not have to use “highfalutin” language, and it doesn’t have to be about a “pie-in-the-sky” subject. Along the route, they gain insights into the historical and sociological occurrences of the thirties and forties as I explain archy’s comments on what were current concerns when the “poems” were written. I do not encourage by the use of The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitibel, a disrespect for poetry, but a familiarity with it. Hopefully as students read poetry from a cockroach about a mundane subject like what goes on after hours in a newspaper office, they will view poetry as something accessible. Later in the semester, I make a concentrated effort to elevate the students to an appreciation of the “specialness” of poetry and to introduce them to recognized and acclaimed poets. The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitibel, however is one place to begin.