Robert F. Lurtsema
12:00 AM, Apr 5, 1999 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
But William Porth, a lawyer in Charleston, West Virginia, recently noticed the striking similarity of Lurtsema's "Ode to A.A." to a poem reprinted in Marquis's 1921 collection The Old Soak and Hail and Farewell. The similarity is more than striking; it's nearly exact. Of Lurtsema's nineteen stanzas, eleven are precise replicas of Marquis's, and the eight others very close.
It would be nice if Lurtsema's plagiarism helped restore interest in Don Marquis. There was a time -- back when Ogden Nash was the most prolific poet for the New Yorker -- that light verse was enormously popular in America. But those days have mostly gone, and only a little of Marquis survives. He created his best-known characters, Archy and Mehitabel, in his 1920s newspaper column, "The Sun Dial." Archy was a cockroach who lived in the city and wrote free verse by hurling himself headfirst against the keys of a typewriter, and Mehitabel was an old cat, jaded by the changing times in New York. Marquis's column would run as though written by Archy (with no capital letters because the diminutive insect couldn't use the shift key). But Archy wasn't just a cockroach, he was a poet whose precocious first words were "expression is the need of my soul."
Marquis wrote nearly three dozen books, but he died just short of sixty years old, and his last fourteen years were filled with tragedy. He was always a hard drinker; E. B. White relates the story of Marquis, at the end of a month as a teetotaler, walking up to the bar and declaring, "I've conquered that god-damn will power of mine. Gimme a double scotch." He lost his only son at age five, and then his wife. He remarried, only to lose his only daughter at thirteen, and then his second wife. In the end, all he had was his work.
Once, while ostensibly describing Archy, Marquis revealed the cost of his own small craftsmanship: "After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion."
The life of our modern Renaissance man, Robert J. Lurtsema, has been considerably more charmed than Marquis's. Knowing where his inspiration derives, the reader may laugh when Lurtsema solemnly invokes the Muse in A Pocketful of Verse and explains that talk of her "can lead to all kinds of philosophical discussions on just where the material comes from in the first place."
But his material has served him very, very well, as he sits in the study of his house by a pond in Wellesley, working in watercolors during the evenings and recording a national radio program in the mornings. He's fond of telling a story of the satisfactions of his fame. When he injured himself skiing in Colorado, the local doctor decided he needed twenty-six stitches. And when "I said I hoped he was a good tailor," the doctor recognized Lurtsema's dulcet voice, and "turning around wide-eyed, the doctor shouted, 'Robert J.? Is that you?' And I assured him it was."
It is finally the pretentiousness that is unbearable. There are, of course, genuine Renaissance men who do things in many different fields. And then there are the sham Renaissance men who want to be perceived to have done things in many different fields. Robert J. Lurtsema's pretension may be forgivable. It's certainly human. But plagiarism is wrong.
Jonathan V. Last is a reporter for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.