A Poem on the Feast of St. Gertrude, Patron Saint of Cats

 

(Upon the poet learning that his cats had chased off a pack of coyotes)

You wish for assistance?
No, my cousin Okie.
If we die, it is our master’s loss,
But if we live, the fewer cats,
The greater share of honor.
With God as my witness, I wish not one cat more.

I am not covetous for catnip,
Nor care where I sleep at night.
It irks me not who takes my
Favorite chair, or swats me off a table
That I have leapt upon.

Such things get not my dander up.
But if it be a sin to covet honor
On the field of battle,
I am the most offending cat alive.

No, coz, wish not a cat from Wayland
Over yon stone wall to climb and save us.
I would not lose so great an honor
As one cat more would share with me.

O, do not wish one more.
Rather proclaim it presently
To the host of coyotes before us
That we’ve the stomach for this fight.
Let them depart.  Dry catfood pellets shall
Be put in their purse to ease their convoy
Back to the hills from whence they came.

This day is called the feast of St. Gertrude
The patron saint of cats.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home
Will stand on hind legs when the day is named
And rouse himself at the name of St. Gertrude.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his fellow-cats
And say “To-morrow is Saint Gertrude’s Day.”
Then will he part his fur and show his scars
And say “These wounds I had on St. Gertrude’s Day.”

Old cats forget, yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day:  Then shall our names
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Okie the King, Rocco the Prince, Spooks, Chewie and Chester–
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.

This story shall the good cat teach his kit,
And St. Gertrude’s Day shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlecats in Weston now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their cathoods cheap while any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Gertrude’s Day.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

The Woods Where I Last Saw My Cat

The woods where I last saw my cat
are white today.  The snow’s begun to thaw
upon the ground where he likely
met his end, by tooth and claw.

The woods where last we heard of him
are quiet now.  There was a noise that night,
my wife said, she didn’t give it a thought;
no point, even, in turning on the light.

He’d triumphed over every mouse
that dared to winter in our house.
In spring he’d lay in wait to kill
chipmunks hid in walls of stone.
He’d chase wild turkeys up the hill
who bothered him, and him alone.

He’d lost a step or two or three
by the night he met his end;
too much leisure, too much food
will do a fighting cat no good.

The woods where last my cat was seen
are bare of leaves, the pines still green.
I think, as I lift snowshoes over stones,
Perhaps in spring I’ll find his bones.

Poetry for Cats

Call me crazy, but I like to write poetry.

For cats.

Cats are a good training ground for poets. They are largely indifferent to poetry, like the overwhelming majority of people, but that still makes them a more receptive audience than my wife, who is openly hostile to the stuff.

Writing poetry for cats is low-level mental stimulation, like doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, but you make up the problem to be solved, rather than some faceless drone at a newspaper syndicate, so when you’re done you’ve created something. Albeit on a par with a gimp necklace at summer camp.

It takes very little activity, or inactivity, on the part of my cats to serve as my muse. Here’s a cat poem I thought of just last night:

I take my laser pen in hand
and shine it in a circle.
My little cat goes chasing ’round,
it drives him quite berserkle!

Then I take what I’ve written, crumple the paper up into a ball, and throw it across the room. My cat pounces on it, extending our fun, and conserving precious resources through recycling. I’m trying to reduce our humor footprint.

Just because I write poetry for my cats doesn’t mean they’re sissies. They’re both males who will stay out all night, getting into fights with all manner of beasts. They bring us sustenance; field mice, birds, chipmunks. Once Rocco, the younger of the two, horse-collared a squirrel from behind, like a member of the New England Patriots’ defense, and dragged it, dying, to our back patio. As a former high school middle linebacker in a 4-3 defensive alignment, I found this to be a most gratifying spectacle.


Horse collar tackle

T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” is perhaps the most famous collection of cat poems, but it has always struck me as a bit fuss-budgety, like its author, a native of St. Louis who became a British subject in 1927, thereby missing out on seven World Series titles by the St. Louis Cardinals. What a dope! That book, of course, was turned into the hugely successful Broadway show Cats.


T.S. Eliot: And you call yourself a Cardinals fan!

My wife once bought us tickets to see the show for my birthday, assuming that because I liked cats, I would like the show, but she sensed my indifference to Eliot’s work at dinner. As we left the restaurant for the theatre we were approached by two show tune mavens who breathlessly asked us if we had tickets we were willing to sell. We gave each other a look that lasted as long as the flutter of a hummingbird’s wings, then sold the ducats at a premium. This is the first and only known instance of scalping by a Presbyterian woman since the church was established during the Scottish Reformation in 1560.


Cats: Thanks, I’ll pass.

Lots of poets have had cats, chief among them Samuel Johnson, whose cat was named “Hodge.”  I had a girlfriend whose cat was named after Johnson’s. When we had her refined friends over she’d tell the story about how, when Johnson learned of a wave of cat-napping sweeping London at the height of the popularity of catsmeat pies, he looked down at his cat and said “They’ll not have Hodge!” Sort of NPR humor, as Harry Shearer would say–loads of muted titters. We broke up; she got the cat, and I got the hell out of there.


Johnson: How do you know you won’t like cat’s meat unless you try it?

For my money, the greatest of all cat poems is For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey by Christopher Smart (1722-1770), from Jubilate Agno. It’s a work that every pet store owner and cat groomer should have up on their wall, in needlepoint. Surely you know its stirring opening lines:


Christopher Smart, wearing his “everyday” mortarboard

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey.
For he is the servant of the Living God,
duly and daily serving him.
For at the First glance of the
glory of God in the East
he worships him in his way.
For is this done by wreathing
his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk,
which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.

Musk is the smelly substance obtained from a small sac under the skin of the abdomen of the rodents cats kill, and to “roll upon prank” refers, in a charming 18th century way, to cats’ preferred method of applying it. Yep–that’s a real cat there, not some Broadway-bound dancer-pussy.

Oh–I neglected to mention that when Smart wrote the above, he was a resident of Bedlam, the London hospital for the mentally ill.

Call him crazy.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collections “Cats Say the Darndest Things” and “poetry is kind of important.”

“Therapy Cat” Program Disbanded for Lack of Interest

BROOKLINE, Mass. This near-suburb of Boston is home to a number of hospitals, including St. Roch’s, named after the patron saint of dogs. “Not coincidentally, we’re the ones who developed the concept of a ‘therapy dog,’” says Dr. Charles Pilcaro, referring to the use of a good-tempered canine to assist a patient who is uncomfortable with physical contact. “If my wife weren’t allergic to them, I’m sure I wouldn’t be so edgy all the time,” he adds in a moment of self-revelation.


“Okay–I’ll leave you my assets and cut my wife out of my will.”

But St. Roch’s ran afoul of St. Gertrude’s, a hospital across town that moved to enforce this state’s strict anti-discrimination laws, which forbid the exclusion of any species from the benefits of a program that receives public funding.  “The people over there are nuts,” says St. Roch’s CFO Ernie Glidden, referring to the bean counters at the rival hospital named after the patron saint of cats.  “It’s not that we don’t like cats–although we don’t–it’s just that it was our idea.”


Sparklepuss is really enjoying that.  Not.

And so funding for the 2012-13 fiscal year was split evenly between the two hospitals, enabling St. Gertrude’s to place 21 mature cats in home settings where the sick, the housebound and the frail elderly could interact with the species that is known for its haughty, almost disdainful attitudes towards humans.


“Did I ASK to come here?  I don’t think so.”

“Whoever came up with this idea ought to have their head examined,” says Elsie Freeman, an 86-year-old widow who’s showing signs of dementia.  “That cat couldn’t give two shits about me, but it did.  On my dining room rug.”

A knock on the door is heard and it’s Winifred Glauben, the volunteer from St. Gertrude’s who’s come to pick up Sparklepuss, an 8-year-old tomcat, from his weeklong assignment.  “Hi everybody!” she calls cheerfully as she enters.  “Is Sparkly ready to go home.”

“If he isn’t I can help him pack,” Freeman says as she draws a cigarette from a box of Marlboro Menthol Lights.  Irritable due to a program rule that has prohibited her from smoking during the therapy cat’s visit, she flicks on her lighter and takes a puff, figuring she has nothing to lose at this point.  “Don’t let the pet door hit you in the ass on your way out,” she snaps as she inhales deeply, then breathes a sigh of visible relief.

The conclusion of a peer-reviewed study of comparative results is that cats provide little or no therapeutic benefits once they have grown out of kittenhood and developed as adults.  “Dogs want to be part of your life,” says animal behaviorist Niles Fersera.  “Cats want to be fed, and would like you to get on with your life.”


“I’m bustin’ out of this joint.”

So St. Roch’s is planning to appeal a ruling by the state agency that cut their funding in half, saying all animals may be equal, but they’re also different.  “The empirical evidence is clear that people derive therapeutic benefits from dogs,” says Pilcaro.  “It is equally clear that it’s the other way around with cats.”

Injuries Few in Annual “Running of the Cats”

SOMERVILLE, Mass.  When this suburb of Boston decided to become a “sister city” with Pamplona, Spain a decade ago, few realized what it would mean for the many cat-owners who live here.


El gato de Somervilla

“We have cats the way some cities have cockroaches,” says city animal officer Hardy Michaels.  “There are more apartment dwellers here per capita than any city in Massachusetts, so we have more cats.  Also a lot of goldfish, but they don’t get out as much.”


Running of the bulls, Pamplona

 

Pamplona is the site of the annual running of the bulls made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises,” however, and when officials from the Spanish sister city visited Somerville in 1998, they asked why there was no counterpart to their annual San Fermin festival, generally regarded as the world’s leading manifestation of innate male stupidity.


Somerville, Mass.

 

“Frankly, we were caught off guard,” says Elinor Harrity, who chaired the Committee on International Relations that the City Council set up because they found the topic of sewers boring.  “We improvised to show our Spanish compadres that we meant them no disrespect, and the running of the cats was born.”


“Look out!”

 

All able-bodied males take to the streets of Somerville today while their Spanish counterparts participate in the San Fermin festival.  There are  eight scheduled runs before a pack of cats that have been fed only dry food and water for a week, whetting their appetite.  “It is a sign of your manhood to risk your life running before the jaws and claws of the hungry cats,” says Andrew Benis, a freelance photographer who recently broke up with his girlfriend of six years.  “Women admire a brave man, but what’s the point if you get trampled to death by a bull before you can score?”


On the prowl.

 

Last year, two men were admitted to Mt. Auburn Hospital with claw scratches on their calves and small puncture wounds on their hands that they suffered when they were bitten as they tried to remove attacking cats from their legs.  “You see your whole life flash before you when those cats come tearing around a street corner,” says George VandeKamp, who works in a used record store.  “Of course, if your life is mainly beer, pizza and beating off like mine, that’s not such a big deal.”

Because of its density, city officials say they would never issue a permit for a running of the bulls here, not that such an event is very likely.  “It’s pretty rare to see a bull around here,” says Assistant Chief of Police Dan Hampy, “although you hear a ton of it any time you walk into a bar.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

A Public Options for Cats?

We had finished dinner and I was hoping to relax and watch some TV when my wife stopped me on the way to the couch.

“We need to talk,” she said in a somber tone–never a good sign when you hear that.

“About what?”

“Expenses–I can’t believe the bills we have coming due!”

“These things always work out,” I said.

“I had to write a big check today,” she said, her forehead furrowed like a field of soybeans.

“For what?”

“A doctor’s visit–$332!” she said with exasperation as she held out the patient’s copy.

“I thought it only cost a $10 co-pay.”

“Not for me–for the cats.”

I was shocked.  We have two cats, but they seem to be in good health, both physical and mental.

“What was wrong?”


Exercise is important.

“Nothing.  Just shots and a regular checkup–weight, heart–the usual.”

It had somehow escaped my attention until then that while the country was engaged in a fierce partisan debate over healthcare for humans, we had taken our eye off the nation’s pets.  With veterinarian’s bills skyrocketing out of control, pet-related healthcare costs threaten to consume an ever-larger portion of the American worker’s take-home pay, larger than the gut of a widow’s pampered dachshund.


“Does this coat make me look fat?”

“Let me see that,” I said as I grabbed the receipt out of her hand.  I added it up–not that that would have changed anything.

“Let me talk to the guys about this,” I said with firmness, and I walked into the family room where our two cats–Rocco and Okie–were sunning themselves.

“Can I talk to you guys for a second?” I said.  They both looked at me like I was a bulk bag of dry cat food from a wholesale club, when they were hoping for Friskies Party Mix.

“I’m kinda busy,” Okie said.

“I wouldn’t call sleeping 16 hours a day ‘busy’, but perhaps this is a subject on which reasonable species can differ,” I said.

“You’re pretty articulate for a guy who’s just had three glasses of wine,” Rocco said.

“I burned the alcohol off when I saw this!” I said as I thrust the vet’s statement in front of their noses.

“What do you want us to do about it?” Okie asked, barely raising his head from the floor.

“I want you to see how much you guys cost us,” I said.

“Did I tell you to have cats?” Rocco asked as he licked his paw and rubbed his ear.


“. . . like I give a flying you-know-what at a rolling chew toy.”

“No, but we’re all in this together.  Every nickel we have to spend at the vet is less money we have to spend on cat food.”

“I got news for you,” Okie said.  “I don’t think you could spend any less on cat food than you already do.”

“Are you kidding?  That Iams low-call stuff is expensive!”

It was Rocco’s turn to gripe.  “You’re not getting your money’s worth,” he said.  “Why do you think we’re always eating chipmunk guts?”

“You’ll thank me in a couple of years when your stomach isn’t dragging the ground,” I said.

“Are those cat years or human years?” Okie asked.

“Whatever.  It’s for your own good.”

“No, it makes you feel good,” Rocco said.  “It makes us miserable.”

“Look–everybody in this house needs to maintain a healthy lifestyle!” I snapped.

“Or what?” Okie asked.  If he’d had eyebrows, one of them would have been raised.  I didn’t like his tone.

“Or we may have to cut back in other areas,” I said in an even tone.  “Like maybe–one cat instead of two.”

“I told you there’d be death panels!” Rocco said.

“You wouldn’t dare!” Okie said, finally taking the trouble to prop himself up on one leg.  “I’ll call the MSPCA!”

“Go ahead,” I said with a laugh.  “They’re the merchants of death, not me.”

That sobered them up a bit.  “We need a public option,” Rocco said after a few moments.  “For cats.”

I hate to say it, but the level of economic ignorance among American household pets is simply appalling.  “Yeah, that’s just what we need,” I said with a sneer.  “Any cat and his dog can just waltz into an emergency room and get unlimited free healthcare.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Rocco asked.

“You end up ballooning the deficit!” I said with alarm.


John Maynard Keynes:  “When the facts change, I change the kitty box.”

“What was it Keynes said?” Okie asked.  “‘In the long run, we are all dead.’”

I can’t tell you how annoying it is to have a Keynesian cat in the house.  No matter how many times I show him how government “stimulus” programs have failed time and again, prolonging economic downturns and acting as a stealth tax on those at the lower end of the economic spectrum through inflation, he just keeps parroting the same cockamamie theories back at me.


Children:  They’re cute when they’re young.

You may be dead in the long run, and I may be dead in the long run,” I said with determination, “but our children and their grandchildren aren’t dead in the long run.”

They looked at each other for a moment, then broke out laughing.


Babe-licious!

“Spare me,” Rocco said.  “You may have children, but we sure as hell won’t.”

“Remember?” Okie added.  “You had us neutered before we could get it on with that long-haired bitch next door.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

How to Floss Your Cat’s Teeth

The house is quiet, and so I lie down and try to take a nap.  I’ve just dozed off when I feel the weight of fifteen pounds of cat flesh land on my chest.  It’s Rocco, the younger of our two toms, looking for a head bonk and a back scratch.

“I was asleep–can’t you meow or something before you pounce on me?”


“What would you suggest–breath mints?”

 

“That would ruin the element of surprise,” he says, and I catch a whiff of serious tuna breath as he does so.

“Jesus–I hope you guys don’t wonder why you never get laid,” I say.  “Your breath smells terrible!”

“It helps keep the coyotes away,” he says.  “They think we’re skunks.”

Okie, the elder grey tabby, jumps up to claim his favorite spot, between my legs with his head down at my feet.  “What are you guys talking about?” he asks.


“Why didn’t you tell me I had bad breath?”

 

“The need for a little dental hygiene around here,” I say.

“You do enough for the three of us,” he says.

“I’m serious–if you guys don’t floss, you’re going to get gingivitis.”

“What’s that?” Rocco asks.

“Gum disease.  Stevie Winwood had it–bad.  If he hadn’t recovered, we might have been deprived of the beauty of his ‘Back in the High Life’ album.”

That brings the seriousness of the disease home to them.  “Geez,” Okie says.  “I never knew.”

“There’s just one problem,” Rocco says.  “We don’t have opposable thumbs.  How the hell are we supposed to hold a piece of dental floss?”

“You don’t need to.  Cats don’t actually floss, they . . . uh . . . let me see.”

Like many cat owners, we pick up feline health information when we go to the veterinarian, then promptly ignore it.  They’re cats, fer Christ sake–they eat squirrel guts.

I rummage through the drawer where we keep their vaccination records and find the brochure I’m looking for–”Dental Hygiene for Cats: A Lifelong Program to Keep Your Kitty’s Teeth and Gums Healthy!”  It’s considered a classic of the genre.


Here, kitty kitty!

 

“Here it is,” I say, showing them the suggestion I remembered.  “To keep your cat’s teeth free from plaque, rub them with panty hose once a week.”  I look at the two of them, expecting expressions of gratitude, but am met with blank stares.

“You’re kidding, right?” Okie asks.

“No.”

“If you think I’m going to sit still through a once-a-week panty hose polish job, you’ve got another think coming.”

“It’s up to you.  If your teeth fall out, how are you going to eat?”

They look at each other, and appear to realize that they have no choice in the matter.

“Where are you going to get panty hose?” Okie asks.


Montaigne:  “Hey–I’m too highbrow for this post.”

 

I know what Montaigne said:  “When I play with my cat, who knows whether she is amusing herself with me, rather than I with her?”  But still, it’s cracks like these that make me feel secure in the superiority of the human intellect over that of a cat.

“You fishstick!  Where do you think we’re going to get panty hose–on mom!”

“But she doesn’t wear panty hose around the house,” Okie asks.

“She’s got a job interview today.  She’ll be dressed professionally when she comes home.”

“Don’t we have to get the panty hose off of her?” Rocco chimes in.

I check the brochure.  “Nope–doesn’t say anything about undressing your wife, girlfriend, date or significant other.  Just ‘rub with panty hose.’”


Jesse James

 

“Let’s hide in the dining room and ambush her when she goes past the door into the kitchen!” Rocco says.

“Yeah–it’ll be like Jesse James robbing the train in Otterville, Missouri!” I exclaim, recalling a favorite highway historical marker of my youth.

The cats stifle yawns–for some reason tales of my boyhood bring on symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome–but they rally and we stake out a position just inside the dining room where we are hidden from the view of anyone entering the kitchen.

We hear the lock turn in the door and, like a precision Swiss clock, our plan ticks forward to its fateful conclusion.

“Ready?” I say as she hits the hardwood floor in the family room.

Rocco hesitates for a moment, then shouts “Now!” and we pounce.

She’s no match for the three of us, and we have her on the floor in a second.  I take her legs and stick one in each of the cats’ mouths before she can collect herself and speak.

“What in the hell are you doing?” she screams.

“Flossing the cats’ teeth–this should only take a second,” I say.

She sits up and looks at the three of us, incredulous.  I’ve seen that expression on her face before, when she broke up a fight between my kids.  Over a Pokemon card.  When they were toddlers.

“You have got to be kidding!”

“No, seriously.  This is what the brochure says to do.”

“What brochure?”

“The one we got at the vet’s.  Here.”

I hand it to her and she scans it while I work feverishly to fight the slow but inexorable advance of cat plaque.

“You didn’t read the warning on the back,” she says with a look that expresses the enduring skepticism she feels whenever I set out to do something around the house that involves practical knowledge and useful skills.

“What’s it say?”

“CAUTION: REMOVE WIFE FROM PANTY HOSE BEFORE APPLYING TO CAT’S TEETH.”

“What happenth if you donth?” Rocco says through a mouthful of nylon.

“SIDE EFFECTS: HUSBAND MAY NOT GET SEX FOR ONE (1) MONTH.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

The Ballad of the Headless Bunny

T’was a Sunday morning, at the end of May
A fine and fragrant playful day
I put on my bike shorts, prepared for a ride
Opened the garage door and went outside.

There I stepped down on what looked like a mouse
Bloody and lifeless outside of our house.
I took bag in hand and prepared to grab it
When I realized the thing was the head of a rabbit!

I stepped inside, to speak with Rocco
Our younger male cat, and sort of a jocko.
I said “Thanks for the present you left on the steps.”
“Just earning,” he said, “my keep as your pet.”

“I appreciate all the hunting you do,”
I said as I scraped the gore off of my shoe,
“But you should know, if you haven’t been told
That beheading bunnies is really quite cold.”

“It’s nature,” Roc said, with a cynical glare.
“He may have been cute, but he’s just a March hare
Who wore out his welcome, so I let him have it.
That’s the cause of the death of this beheaded rabbit.”

Up ambled Okie, elder cat statesman.
He’d spent the night downstairs in the basement.
His hunting days over, he’s now much the wiser.
He only chews cat food on his long incisors.

“Kid, you blew it,” he said as he walked up,
“When you rub out a rabbit, you don’t want to get talked up.
Silent but deadly, discreet terminations
Are the type that are favored by all criminal nations.”

The younger buck stood as if stunned by a shot.
“You mean you don’t celebrate, a lot or a jot?”
“No way,” said his brother, who’s now in his dotage.
“You don’t want to be covered by cat crime repotage.”

“The tabloids are vicious, the front page pics grisly,
The stories they offer are hot and quite sizzly.
When word gets round you’re big cat on the block
Every tom in the hood wants to give you a knock.”

So Rocco, a feline who learns as he goes,
Decided he’d rather be writ up in prose.
No Song of Rocco, for this black and white moppet
He ordered the author of this poem to stop it.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

 

Big Kitty & Baby Cat

I grew up with a cat whose name was Big Kitty,
   the ruler with terror of our provincial city.
Part Tugboat Annie, part Calamity Jane,
   her main purpose in life was the infliction of pain.

She lived with us and her spinster daughter,
   a kitten no one took, much less would’ve bought her.
The latter cat’s coat was a sort of tortoise shell pattern
   that marked her a mongrel, the spawn of a slattern.

The other kits in the litter quite flew off the shelf,
   but not Baby Cat, who was left by herself.

The sort of thing that would set Big Kitty off
   was a stray remark, a sneer, a scoff
at Baby Cat’s dubious legitimacy,
   her mongrel, miscegenate, odd-looking kittemacy.

Big Kitty was the sort of blowsy blonde you’d find in a feline cocktail lounge.
   Toms would buy her drinks with parasols, and pizza-flavored goldfish.
She never had to scrounge,
   she ate from a gold dish.

But the lady in her would disappear and she’d kick your sorry butt
    if you happened to suggest that her daughter was a mutt.
She’d be all over you like a can of flea powder
    you’d scream real loud, then you’d scream even louder.

We’d watch them come home with vindicated pride
   after tanning some impertinent cat (or dog’s) hide.
The aging mother’d lick her daughter’s mottled fur
   until her offspring would begin to purr.

And then she’d explain
   in her best cat mommin’
“Don’t mind that trash,
   they’re tacky—and common.”

Moral: Even the runt of the litter is some cat’s kitten.

Intensive Seminar Helps Cat Poets Sharpens Their Claws

BECKET, Mass.  This sleepy western Massachusetts town is home to St. Judith College, the only institution of higher learning in the world named after the patron saint of cats, but that’s not the explanation for the high number of cat lovers here this weekend.  “I have learned so much and made so many good friends—some of them human,” gushes Judith Sherman about a three-day intensive seminar in cat poetry she attended here beginning Friday night.  “I will never rhyme ‘cat’ and ‘mat’ again, that’s for sure.”

Sherman and nineteen other applicants were accepted into a program designed to reverse what Professor Roger Guilbard sees as a disturbing downward trend in the quality of cat poetry.  “Poetry about cats reached its zenith in the eighteenth century with Christopher Smart’s ‘Jubilate Agno’ and Thomas Gray’s ‘On the Death of a Favorite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes,’” notes Guilbard, an authority on cat poetry.  “T.S. Eliot and Stevie Smith went all cutesy-pie in the twentieth century and it’s been downhill ever since.”

The thrust of instruction and correction in one-on-one sessions and small group discussions has been to discourage the tendency to anthropomorphize our feline friends, says teaching assistant Glynda Gaelwig, who is studying for a master’s degree in English with a concentration in cat poetry.  “Excessive sentimentality is the occupational habit—if not the occupation–of cat poets,” the slim, bespectacled blonde notes as she takes an unsparing pen to a poem entitled “My Best Friends Are Cats.”   “We try to get our cat poets to understand that first they must observe and make us see their cats, then if it’s not too saccharine to let us know how they feel about them.”

Melinda Stiffel is first to recite in a roundtable group of poets who will have their work critiqued by other participants and, after clearing her throat, she launches into “Some Things About You I’m Not Fond Of,” a poem about her male tuxedo cat, Mr. Scruffy:

I love you much, I love you truly,
You’re just as cute as a bug,
But I really wish you wouldn’t upchuck
Field mice upon the rugs.

 

“Anyone want to take a stab at that?” Guildbard asks, and Nancy Palsgraff, who writes a weekly pet poetry column for the North Adams News-Courier, meekly raises her hand.  “I think Melinda did what you told us to,” she says.  “You said to take an unsparing look at our pets and not churn out greeting card poems.”

“Fair enough,” Guilbard says. “Although the gimlet eye that a great poet must strive for is clouded by affection, it’s a worthy first effort.  Let’s hear what you came up with, Nancy.”

Palsgraff shuffles her papers to place “There’s Just One Thing I Don’t Like About You” on top from the bottom, where she had kept it concealed until prompted in order to hide it from the prying eyes of her fellow students.  She looks around the room warily, hoping the criticism of her work won’t be too harsh, then begins:

I think you are perfect in many ways,
And I don’t mean to be a grouch,
But I’m tired of yelling at you all the time
When you sharpen your claws on my couch!

 

“Ok,” Gaelwig says, “now we’re getting somewhere.  I sense a strain of resentment.  You’d like to have nice furniture, but you can’t as long as your cat insists on being—a cat!  It’s an insoluble dilemma—he can’t change his nature.  That’s the kind of knotty problem that makes for great poetry.”

Palsgraff allows herself a tiny little smile of self-satisfaction, and a barely-audible “Thanks” issues from her lips.

“Any comments from the group?” Gaelwig asks.

The hand that shoots up belongs to Con Chapman, the only male in the group, and from the look on his face it is apparent he doesn’t think much of what he’s heard.  “That was nice, Nancy,” he says with a sarcastic tone, “really nice.  Why don’t you just get your damn cat a scratching post, and spare us the limp claptrap?”

An audible gasp is heard from the class, and Guilbard clucks his tongue in disapproval.  “I’ve warned you about maintaining a civil tone in group discussions before,” he says with a stern expression.

“And E.B. White warned us to avoid the gerundic, and yet you persist in using it,” Chapman shoots right back at the professor.

“Well, let’s hear what you wrote,” Stiffel says through a sniffle.

“I’ll be happy to ‘share’ it with you,” Chapman says.  “This be the verse,” he says by way of introduction, invoking “His Epitaph” by Robert Louis Stevenson and the poem of the same name by Philip Larkin, “that I would like to be remembered by.”  He straightens himself, announces the title—“My Wild Feline Boy”—and begins:

It’s three a.m. and the cat wants in,
My wild feline boy.
He’s made his way home from a night of sin,
My errant feline boy.

With a notch in his ear from an honor-mad fight
And a tail that is shorter than at last sunlight
He stops to eat, then he curls to sleep
My sated feline boy.

He recalls for me a time when I,
Like he, roamed the streets at night.
He unlike me, sleeps an untroubled sleep.
My antic feline boy.


“That’s awful!”

There are looks of consternation on the faces of the others except for Palsgraff, still smarting from the criticism her work received.  “I think it’s horrible!” she says with an exhalation of poetic afflatus.

“Would you care to . . . elaborate?” Guilbard asks her gently.

“A cat who fights is a bad cat!”

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