The Cockroach

 Overview

Who is the cockroach? Kevin Halligan is the cockroach; this poem follows the idle contemplation of the life of a cockroach, which at first seems to have some sort of direction, but then the cockroach seems to be considerably distressed by its own aimlessness. Halligan recognises this in his own life.

I watched a giant cockroach start to pace,
Skirting a ball of dust that rode the floor.
At first he seemed quite satisfied to trace
A path between the wainscot and the door,
But soon he turned to jog in crooked rings,
Circling the rusty table leg and back,
And flipping right over to scratch his wings –
As if the victim of a mild attack
Of restlessness that worsened over time.
After a while, he climbed an open shelf
And stopped. He looked uncertain where to go.
Was this due payment for some vicious crime
A former life had led to? I don’t know,
Except I thought I recognised myself.

Kevin Halligan (1964-Present)

Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.


ContextThemesContentLanguage and techniquesStructureTone

Context

Halligan is a Canadian poet born in the 1960s and with three poetry collections to his name.

I couldn’t find much background on him, but did find out that he lived abroad for a number of years in England and Cambodia before returning to Canada. Now this is quite a big leap, but potentially this poem could be a reflection of this travelling as a lack of a home base is often seen as a result of someone being a bit lost and not really knowing what they want from life. However, as I could be considered to be in the same boat that is not always the reason for travelling so my guess could be absolute tosh!

 Themes

Well, the title will tell you that we can link this poem to the general theme of nature. However, more significantly this is a contemplation of modern human existence and the meaning of life; Halligan feels lost and directionless and the humanification of the cockroach also has the effect of animalising man.

Content

Hopefully by now you are getting used to the deeper meaning contained within these poems and recognising how elements of nature are being used to examine human existence. This is one of my favourite poems in this collection partly because it’s easy to analyse and quite short, but more because the emotions in the poem are something that I think everyone experiences at some point – self doubt.

So, the poem opens with a description of the cockroach going about its business, seemingly running its errand of pushing dust around the room and following a defined path. However, quickly it appears that he has no direction as he loses his certainty and start heading in circles and twitching uncomfortably which is described as a ‘mild attack of restlessness that worsened over time’. When we’re restless we want something to do, something to inspire us or give us direction. He briefly moves with certainty before stopping completely and seeming ‘uncertain’. We know the cockroach is distressed as Halligan questions whether his state of confusion is a form of punishment.

The last line makes the deeper meaning fairly obvious. What element of himself would Halligan recognise in a cockroach? Clearly it’s the lack of direction in his life as that is the focus of the poem, but it’s interesting to go back through the language of the poem and examine exactly how Halligan must be feeling.

Language and techniques

The most significant thing to deal with here is the comparison between Halligan and the cockroach. Living in Uganda, I now understand why cockroaches seem to be the most demonised insect as they hang around in horrible places, scuttle aggressively towards you and can get alarmingly big. There are lots of insects or even other animals Halligan could’ve chosen, but he picked cockroaches deliberately because of this reputation. We associate cockroaches with being dirty, disgusting and things to avoid: could this be how he feels about himself? He feels some sort of shame for not knowing what to do with his life and finding the world confusing. He should calm down as everyone is the same, pretending to know what they are doing while really just making everything up.

How do we know the cockroach isn’t having a lovely time? Examine the language choice: we start off with ‘quite satisfied’ – if you’re satisfied you’re not really happy or sad, just confident that things are going the right way – but then everything goes wrong. He ‘jogs in crooked rings’ and begins ‘circling the rusty table leg’, which suggests he’s lost track and the idea of the rusty table leg might indicate he’s not heading in the right direction – dirty, old and worn out table leg as opposed to a shiny, bright new one. It gets worse though, when the cockroach scratches its wing we are told this is a ‘mild attack’, which indicates distress and this ‘worsened over time’. The thing causing this distress is simply the lack of certainty.

Apply this to your life: having to make decisions about which iGCSEs to take, then A-levels, then degree and then ultimately your career path. Do you really know what you want to and are going to do for the rest of your life and the right steps to take? Most people don’t and just sort of fall into what they are doing and lack a clear understanding of what they want from life.

The last four lines are lovely – to me at least. ‘He looked uncertain’ doesn’t seem such a bad thing on the face of things, but Halligan makes this seem disastrous as he asks if it is ‘due payment for some vicious crime’ in a past life. He’s linking to the Buddhist idea about reincarnation, but more importantly is suggesting that lacking direction is a punishment and a terrible fate for anyone. That last line links all the ideas of the poem to him and his life, he is clearly distressed about his personal direction.

Don’t forget to mention in any essay the importance of the personification of the cockroach. Throughout the poem he is referred to as ‘he’ and all the verbs associated with the cockroach seem quite humanesque – pace, jog, climbed. Halligan does this as the cockroach is really a metaphor or an analogy for human life, so he humanises the insect through personification – it makes us think about creatures applying human emotions and feelings to them.

Structure

Lots to say about this and I think it’s very cleverly written.

Okay, we’ve got only one biggish stanza making up the poem. However, there are two distinct parts: lines 1-8 and lines 9-14. Lines 1-8 are two quatrains (see glossary) that follow a regular ABAB rhyme scheme and each pair of lines alternates between 10 and 8 syllables (by my count – don’t take my word for it as I find counting syllables impossible and don’t trust internet sites for accuracy); however, when we look at lines 9-14 the rhyme scheme becomes incredibly irregular (ABCACB) and the lines vary considerably in length and the syllable count loses any regularity (11,10,11,9,10,10). This is significant because it links to the message of the poem: at first we see the cockroach seems to have some idea of what it is doing with its life, but then becomes distressed and uncertain of where to go in the second section. Thus the structure is being used to further convey the lack of focus and uncertainty of the cockroach/Halligan.

Tone

I think the poem is contemplative. I imagine it being read as if the poet is in a daydream that suddenly has a certain lucidity at the end when he links the cockroach to himself. He is not depressed or angry, just contemplating the meaning of life and his place in the world.

Author: Mr Sir

Although I've only been teaching Literature since 2011 and did my degree in History, I think that makes me better placed than many Lit teachers to provide notes that make sense and aren't garbled and wrapped up with inaccessible terminology and effluent nonsense. After adventures in Uganda and Uzbekistan, I am now settling down in the Netherlands. However, currently I am just about as unsettled as I have ever been, with a new job, a new baby, a new country and a hundred other things going on! Ask me a question, collaborate or abuse me.

5 thoughts on “The Cockroach”

  1. thank you everything mr sir!!!! you literally saved us from failure in the exam! thanks a lot!!you are my heroe mate, love you

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