Calvin Trillin has many hats — journalist, essayist, humorist, doggerelist — and he wears all of them well. He is that rare writer who can write authoritatively one day and with absurd abandon the next. His profiles in The New Yorker (where he has worked since 1963) are masterpieces of long-form journalism, and his comic essays on food are pure gold. Consider his decades-long campaign to have spaghetti carbonara replace turkey as the national Thanksgiving dish, or his paeans (dozens of them) to a certain Kansas City barbecue restaurant (operated by one Arthur Bryant).
And then there are his stories about Alice, his wife, and her “seemingly uncontrollable attacks of moderation.” Alice, he once wrote famously, “has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.”
Trillin has also won praise as a “deadline poet,” writing bits of light, topical verse in The Nation since 1990. Here are two examples from 2003, the first written after former Vice President Al Gore announced that he wouldn’t run for president in the next election:
We now feel warm toward Albert Gore,
Who will not run in aughty-four.
Most candidates, I must admit,
Seem at their best the day they quit.
And after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, ostensibly to destroy weapons of mass destruction, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein:
We’re safe from Saddam, tra-la, tra-la,
We’re safe from Saddam, oh goody!
He can’t send a bomb, tra-la, tra-la.
Which he could have done. Or could he?
Trillin’s doggerel deadline poetry has a precedent stretching back more than a century. Take a look at the following verse from Don Marquis’s budding column in the New York Evening Sun on Nov. 8, 1912, three days after Woodrow Wilson’s election as president ended 16 years of Republican control of the White House:
Woodrow, you have my sympathy —
Think of that awful mob
Of seven million Democrats,
Each howling for a job.
They’ve hungered through the long, lean years,
More famished day by day —
Woodrow, my boy, you stand between
The lion and his prey!
Marquis was also poking fun at politicians on the day Archy the cockroach first appeared in print, March 29, 1916. Archy wasn’t at the top of that day’s Sun Dial column; it was a quick, two-line verse about Charles Evans Hughes, the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president in the upcoming election. Hughes had been a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court for six years at that point and had not commented publicly on topics of the day since he took his seat on the bench. The public was curious, and so was Marquis. He wrote, simply:
What are your views?
In the following years Marquis used Archy to remark on current events, too, and gradually the verses touched more broadly on the human condition. As Archy opined:
i do not kick against my fate
i think that life is swell
contentedly i sit and wait
for the world to go to hell
And Marquis, who eventually worked himself to death writing a succession of books, magazine articles, Broadway plays and Hollywood screenplays, reverted to doggerel to remind readers — and himself — to slow down and savor what life is left in us:
We waste in toil
Will nevermore return!
The proper sort of midnight oil
Was made to drink,
From one doggerelist to another, it is especially fitting that Calvin Trillin chose to read a few lines of poetry, ostensibly from Archy, as his gracious contribution to archyFest, the yearlong celebration of Archy and Mehitabel’s first century in print. The poem, “fate is unfair,” is from “archy does his part” (Doubleday, 1935).
Thank you, Calvin Trillin!
Here is his video:
These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” We plan to present a new video every week (or so) through the end of 2016. If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.
Up next: Former U.S. Rep. David Obey!