The Lesson of the Moth, by Don Marquis

Today’s post features the writing of Don Marquis, an author/journalist who created a character named Archy, a cockroach who sneaks onto Marquis’ typewriter at night to write poetry. Archy is in fact a reincarnated poet (Sucks to be reincarnated as a roach, whoa). In this piece, Archy meets a moth and asks him that burning (sorry) question: why do you like light bulbs and flames so much? Why, if you die as a result? The answer is beautiful. Read the whole thing below.

the lesson of the moth

archybigi was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us 
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while 
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself

– Don Marquis

The bolded sections are my favorite parts of this piece, because they echo the trite sentiment that we must take advantage of our lives while we are alive. This is the cockroach-moth version of YOLO, but much more poetic, thank goodness. The moth is wise and practical, but he knows that the purpose of life is to risk it. Risk it for something you think is worth it. Risk it for beauty and for love, risk it for your dreams. This is the way to ultimate happiness.

Archy’s response is to choose “half the happiness” and retain his life, but what is his life without the pursuit of the highest happiness?

References

Marquis, D. “The Lesson of the Moth.” Accessed March 4, 2014 at this link.

Rilke's Powerful Words For a Young Poet

For a long time, I have been a lover of Rilke’s poetry and prose. I started with The Duino Elegies, and it wasn’t long before I tumbled headfirst into his intense poetry, sparkling with romantic images and those glorious, indifferent angels. As I dove into his words, I found what has become a classic work of literature as well as a timeless book of advice for writers: Letters to a Young Poet.

Letters-to-a-Young-Poet-Translated-and-With-a-Foreword-by-Stephen-Mitchell-Hardcover-P9780679642329My edition features a foreword by Stephen Mitchell (who did the best translation of Rilke’s work, in my opinion). In it, he describes how this book was his first introduction to Rilke, and how he “felt, as many readers have felt, that the letters were written for [him].” (vi) It’s a universal feeling. The “young poet” of the title was a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. When I first read this book I was also nineteen, a college student consumed with classes yet cherishing a desire to be a fully-fledged writer. I place myself within a chorus of like-minded individuals, Mitchell included, by feeling like this book was written for me.

As a person, I don’t really believe in self-help books. As an aspiring writer, I also don’t believe in how-to-write books. How can you tell anyone how to write, as if there were only one way to create art? Luckily, Letters to a Young Poet is a different beast altogether. Rilke speaks more to the soul of the writer than to the activity of writing itself. There is no “how-to.” At the risk of sounding like Yoda, Rilke seems to say, “do or do not.” He agrees that “no one can advise or help you–no one.” Just write. It’s that simple. And that difficult.

Rilke begins his book of “advice,” even though the content directly rejects that category, with a question posed directly to Kappus and to us:

Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of the night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (6)

Seriously, I think I should start carrying around this little book the same way I carry my wallet and keys: it is a complete necessity. Rilke makes it clear that it is not criticism, constructive or not, that a writer needs to write well. There is no way of Rilke to determine whether Kappus’s work is “good” or not, as Kappus asks him. The only way Rilke can judge his work is if it had “arisen out of necessity,” out of the riches of his life. Artists are able to make art out of anything, even a seemingly boring life. To be an artist is a “calling,” says Rilke, a burden and a destiny.

This book carries with it a strange mystique, a sense that it is alive, and it always manages to inspire creative energy within me. After reading it I always feel a bit calmer, a bit happier, a little more confident in my ability to write. After reading, I manage to shed a bit of my outer life and exist more wholly within, in a place where the desire to write takes over, and it becomes easier. Maybe it’s the fear of failing that Rilke’s words dissipate. In any case, Letters to a Young Poet is, as I’ve said, a complete necessity for any artist, not exclusively writers.

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. 

Apart from Rilke’s words to Kappus and to all writers, this book is a treasure because it offers glimpses into Rilke’s life and trials, in such a way that makes me feel a little closer to one of my favorite poets. He describes in 1905 how he has been afflicted with influenza, and how he sought respite from his illness in southern Italy. I love reading about these small instances of Rilke’s physical being in the world, dated as they are. Letters are incredibly personal. It feels timeless, as if Rilke is still operating after his death. Yeah, it’s weird, but I love it. It’s the same feeling that he somehow is still speaking to writers, to anyone who cracks open the cover of this slim collection.

References

Rilke, R.M. and Stephen Mitchell. Letters to a Young Poet. 1984. New York, NY: Random House.