For many decades, I was a plainclothes reader of poetry. I took a course at university, like people do, but wasn’t terribly impressed. Still, impressions were made. A few poems, for reasons quirky to me, stuck. That is, I remembered certain lines and, like stubborn lint that’s taken up residence in wool, they refused to give. Strands of them took up permanent residency in those out-of-the-way lobes of my brain.
One “sticker” was some poem a guy wrote about his cat, Jeoffrey. Perhaps it was the poem. Perhaps it was the idea that a poet would riff for an entire poem on his cat. And I’m a dog guy, so don’t get it in your head that I like the poem because I watch inane youtube videos about kitties. This poem transcends all that silliness.
The poem in question? “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey” by Christopher “Really” Smart, a guy who spent seven years in an insane asylum (while Jeoffrey ran affairs back home, no doubt). A taste (brace yourself for a strong dose of anaphora):
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
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 in his way.
For this is 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.
For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.
For having consider’d God and himself he will consider his neighbour.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day’s work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction, if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness, when God tells him he’s a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defence is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord’s poor and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually–Poor Jeoffry! poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can set up with gravity which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master’s bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Ichneumon-rat very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God’s light about him both wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual substance, which God sends from heaven to sustain the bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
To qualify as a “stick” poem, the poem doesn’t have to be remembered whole hog. Oh, no. One line will do. The best example is a two-word line from a poem that I frequently mutter as I look up at raucous crows in the sky, on tree limbs, or on the peak of the roof. It is, simply, “Pass, crow.” The words rattle like two marbles in the empty cup of my mind every time I see my dark-feathered friends.
And what a lovely conceit! I mean, the very thought of man commanding crow! If crows appear to laugh, their heads bobbing with due caws, this final line from this poem is the reason. Ted Hughes, a crow specialist, is the deluded poet:
“Examination at the Womb-Door”
Who owns those scrawny little feet? Death.
Who owns this bristly scorched-looking face? Death.
Who owns these still-working lungs? Death.
Who owns this utility coat of muscles? Death.
Who owns these unspeakable guts? Death.
Who owns these questionable brains? Death.
All this messy blood? Death.
These minimum-efficiency eyes? Death.
This wicked little tongue? Death.
This occasional wakefulness? Death.
Given, stolen, or held pending trial?
Who owns the whole rainy, stony earth? Death.
Who owns all of space? Death.
Who is stronger than hope? Death.
Who is stronger than the will? Death.
Stronger than love? Death.
Stronger than life? Death.
But who is stronger than Death?
Of course, you cannot be a registered reader of American poetry if you don’t have some Frost covering the frozen grass of your mind. For me, it’s two lines: “Whose woods these are I think I know” (though, like Frost, I don’t really) and “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”
If the roads had diverged in a red wood, it wouldn’t work as well. Yes, it’d be a nod to Frost’s birth state of California, but memorable? No. It may be read multiple times, but it just wouldn’t stick.
I should know. I’ve been going left at every fork in a yellow wood I’ve come across. Explains a lot, doesn’t it?