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Explain the poem "The Cockroach" by Kevin Halligan.

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karen08 | Student, Grade 10 | (Level 2) eNoter

Posted April 13, 2013 at 12:49 PM via web

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Explain the poem "The Cockroach" by Kevin Halligan.

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted April 13, 2013 at 10:13 PM (Answer #1)

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Kevin Halligan’s  poem “ The Cockroach” should be read on two levels: literal and figurative.  The poem has fifteen lines with a set rhyme scheme of every other line rhyming—ABABCDCD [to show the pattern]. The point of view is first person with the poet as the speaker.

The literal meaning is a realistic scene of the speaker watching a huge cockroach crossing the floor of the house.  The speaker is intrigued and examines the movement of the insect. 

The roach avoids a dust bunny by sidestepping around it. As it crossed the floor, it follows a path probably previous covered.  The roach begins to move quicker in circles and acts oddly.  It flips over as if to scratch its wings.  Something was affecting the bug because it seems to be having an attack which causes it be uncertain and erratic in its movements.

Finally, it climbed up on a shelf and ceased to move.  No longer did it appear to know what to do.  Was it being punished for something that it had done? While the speaker watched the insect, he felt as though he saw himself in its actions. It looked clear about what to do next.

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.

On a deeper, figurative level, the poem can be read as an extended metaphor for the life of the speaker or possibly the human race in general. The roach is large which indicates an unusual insect.  Is it large because it is large for the species or just large enough to represent man?

The activities of the roach are supplied using action verbs typical of a person’s movements: job, trace, circle, and skirted.  As its actions become more frantic, it represents human nature when it reacts to an unnerving situation. 

Initially, the cockroach appears to be moving along in its path, then something happens which throws it off center. Man in his life often has an event that rattles his normalcy or knocks him “off his game.”


First moving in a straight line or path with a specific goal in mind, man sometimes engages in some activity which impacts his actions.  It may be restlessness, boredom, or even something more spurious—drugs, alcohol, wrongful activities.

If a person does not accomplish what he wants or fails to receive the returns that he expects, he may scurry around to change the course of his life without having a plan or a goal.  When the insect climbs on the shelf, it is apparent that it is unclear what it plans on doing next. This also happens to a person when he has something that impacts his life in a uncertain or unclear manner.  He stops and looks at his options and hopefully is able to return to a more positive path. 

Unfortunately, in the poem, the reader is not sure what will happen next since the speaker sees himself in the tentative stance.  This is true of all men’s future…no one knows what will happened next or what needs to be done to get back on the beaten path

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