Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Some Poetical Cats

A short time ago, I came across a small book. It was Henry Beard's Poetry For Cats. No, it's not a book with poems about cats. The title is somewhat misleading. It is, says Henry Beard, a collection of poems by cats. Even a quick glance through the book will show that the themes of the poems are those one might well suspect would be of most interest to cats: mice, rats, dogs, birds, vets .

Moreover, these are poems written by cats who have had some connection with well-known human poets. This small volume should be of interest to those scholars who love teasing out influences among writers: A influenced B who influenced C who influenced D who had no influence on anybody at anytime. A careful perusal of the poems by humans and those by cats who lived with the human poets could possibly, I think, show some similarities between them. As to the direction of the influence, whether the human poet influenced the feline poet or vice-versa, I shall leave it to the experts to figure out.

Here is a well-known poem by the human poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Her cat had a slightly different version:

To A Vase

How do I break thee! Let me count the ways.
I break thee if thou art at any height
My paw can reach, when, smarting from some slight,
I sulk, or have one of my crazy days.
I break thee with an accidental graze
Or twitch of tail, if I should take a fright.
I break thee out of pure and simple spite
The way I broke the jar of mayonnaise.
I break thee if a bug upon thee sits.
I break thee if I'm in a playful mood,
And then I wrestle with the shiny bits.
I break thee if I do not like my food.
And if someone thy shards together fits,
I break thee once again when thou are glued.

Or one by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William's cat wrote the following:

so much depends

a yellow gold

washed down with bowl

inside the white

And one last example, one of my favorites, Robert Frost's

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

And Frost's poetical cat penned the following:

Sitting by the Fire on a Snowy Evening

Whose chair this is by now I know.
He's somewhere in the forest though;
He will not see me sitting here
A place I'm not supposed to go.

He really is a little queer
To leave his fire's cozy cheer
And ride out by the frozen lake
The coldest evening of the year.

To love the snow it takes a flake:
The chill that makes your footpads ache,
The drifts too high to lurk or creep,
The icicles that drip and break.

His chair is comfy, soft and deep.
But I have got an urge to leap.
And mice to catch before I sleep.
And mice to catch before I sleep.

Others in the book are "Grendel' s Dog" by an anonymous cat (trans. from Old English by the Editor's Cat)

"Brave Beocat,_____ brood-kit of Ecgthmeow,

Hearth-pet of Hrothgar_____ in whose high halls

He mauled without mercy_____ many fat mice,"

Besides the ones just quoted are cat friends of Chaucer, Donne, Blake, Milton, and of course, Shakespeare, along with many others.

If you wish to see variants of some well-known poems, perhaps some of your favorites, from a feline POV, I can recommend this book.

Henry Beard
Poetry for Cats
Villard Books, a division of Random House

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