The youngest and craziest of our three cats, Geno-- who once won a fight with a Kleenex box-- has been jumpy and grumpy lately: with school starting, we've been home less, and he's been transforming his unused playfulness into aggression against his (adopted) older brother and sister kitties.
What to do? Give Geno more attention each weekend, of course, and especially on Caturdays (and no, we didn't make Caturday up; far from it). Right now, though, Geno is nowhere to be found, and so I'll give attention, instead, to some cats in poems. What brings cats into poems? Why are there so many? Do they have anything in common? Why
A few years ago I remember hearing-- I believe that nothing came of it, alas-- of a literary anthology compiling nothing but serious poems about cats, from the earliest such poems (or the first in a Western language) to the present day. (I think that project may have turned into this more capacious one by John Hollander, which looks great-- I haven't read it yet-- or else into this one, compiled by Joyce Carol Oates, many of whose poems I have read, but whose stories I haven't).
Any cat anthology should include the medieval Irish poem on Pangur Ban, the scholar's cat whose pursuits-- so consistent, so toothsome at times, so fruitless at others-- resemble the scholars'. We could use Paul Muldoon's translation. It would include Gray's "Favorite Cat," of course, and the excerpt one always sees (often to the exclusion of the rest of the poem) from Christopher Smart's Jubilate Agno, the one about his cat Geoffrey.
We'd want (what Oates includes in her anthology) Marianne Moore's "Peter," and William Carlos Williams' "Poem" about the cat and the jam closet, and (what she omits) James Merrill's "Nine Lives," and James K. Baxter's syllabics about his tomcat, and Randall Jarrell's "Jerome," about a lion who is really a purring domesticable feline at heart, and Jarrell's late short poem about a basket of free kittens, at the very back of his Complete Poems, and a poem by the current Irish poet John Redmond, and more.
And we might want, too, a précis of the remarkable history of cat literature by Katharine Rogers, who explains that cats become important to everyday life in Europe in the Middle Ages, because they catch vermin, but don't become highly cherished as classy pets (in the way that hunting dogs do) until the late 18th century. Cats, she argues, are like women, and dogs are like men, in a surprisingly consistent way, in Western European letters from late medieval times to the present (Baxter would disagree, but he liked disagreeing: I'm largely convinced).
Which leaves us, this Caturday, with the question: why? Is there anything that these poems about cats might have in common? And why do we go on caring, sometimes at great expense or with heartburn involved, for creatures who are sometimes superaffectionate, but at times seem only to want us for our ability to dispense treats, and who would rather claw us than purr while we hold them?
I'm not prepared to defend the claim at length, but here's a hypothesis: the heroes of existential novels, it used to be said, defined themselves by an acte gratuit (gratituitous act), undertaken for no reason, generally harmful to somebody or something, designed to prove their freedom. That's one reading of a novel some of us read in high school (either in English or in French).
You don't want to go around harming people for no reason just in order to prove your freedom. And you don't want to go around giving your love and affection, in great measure, to people who are up-and-down, don't-care-about-you-one-minute, love-you-the-next-types. (I don't, anyway. Some people do.) But what if we could demonstrate our freedom and our capacity for deep affection, at once, by bestowing that affection harmlessly, without fear of doing something morally wrong, on... an animal that can love you back, but might not, and in any case an animal (i.e. no dog) that does not recognize the foundation of ethics, the obligation to honor a promise?
Yes, I am arguing that our pet cats give us the chance to practice an acte gratuit of affection, rather than of aggression, and thereby to prove our freedom while stroking their fur. And if you are wondering what this general foray into animal history has to do with the history of poetry, check out that excerpt from Christopher Smart again: to love the random actions of the cat Geoffrey is not like loving any human being, but for Smart-- a very pious man (he was locked up because he couldn't stop praying)-- it is much like loving God's presence in this world.
On the other hand, look what Smart says about his cat: "For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation." Maybe Geoffrey and Geno are just different kinds of cats. Or maybe Geno just needs some more love.
Stephanie (also Steph; formerly Stephen) Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of [her] generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published four collections of poems: Advice...