Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Toward a Stray Cat Ethics of Poetry Criticism

Meet Bella and Athens, the P&PC Office cats. We adopted them last Fall shortly after our former friend and companion Stella reached the end of her nineteen years. (Regular P&PC readers met Stella here.) We weren't entirely sure we were ready to replace Stella, but the office got so empty so quickly that we just couldn't bear it, and so down we trooped to Salem Friends of Felines and came home with these two adorable stray tuxedos. At the time, Bella (on the left) was a little over a year old, and Athens (on the right) was eight months. They're awesome—a combined twenty pounds of confusion, excitement, energy, and curiosity that has made the office a lively and unpredictable place over the last several months.

We here at P&PC love John Keats's poem "To Mrs. Reynolds's Cat":
Cat! who hast passed thy grand climacteric,
   How many mice and rats hast in thy days
   Destroyed? How many tit-bits stolen? Gaze
With those bright languid segments green, and prick
Those velvet ears - but prithee do not stick
   Thy latent talons in me, and up-raise
   Thy gentle mew, and tell me all thy frays
Of fish and mice, and rats and tender chick.
Nay, look not down, nor lick thy dainty wrists -
   For all thy wheezy asthma, and for all
Thy tail's tip is nicked off, and though the fists
   Of many a maid have given thee many a maul,
Still is that fur as soft as when the lists
   In youth thou enteredst on glass-bottled wall.     
Imagine our surprise, then, when Athens—clearly the poet of the pair—began suffering from the "wheezy asthma" mentioned in Keats's poem. We took her to the vet. He put her on prednisone. That helped for a while, but she has since had two acute attacks that landed her listless and drooling in the emergency vet's oxygen chambers. We haven't yet purchased the little AeroKat inhaler that's been recommended—our non-advertising-based non-revenue has us working on a petty slim budget—but we think that, following an increase in her meds, we've finally got things under control. Wheezy is now doing just fine, and the office is clattering with the noise of tinfoil balls, feather toys, and the general racket of Bella and Athens tearing after each other and rolling from room to room leaving tufts of fur hovering in the air behind them.

Stella didn't require much from the vet, so we've never spent much time looking around the waiting room. Waiting for Athens, however, we've had a chance to peruse the decor at Steve Swart's Capitol Veterinary Clinic in Salem, and we've discovered that if Athens does indeed have a little poetic breathing disorder, then she's going to the right place, as Swart's waiting room is a not unpoetic place. In the lower left-hand corner of the framed collage pictured in the previous paragraph, for example, you'll find Francis Witham's "Stray Cat" (pictured here) done up in blue calligraphy. While it doesn't have a whole lot in common with Keats's sonnet, it does eerily recall William Ernest Henley's "Invictus"—and not just because it's got sixteen lines of iambic tetrameter just like "Invictus" does, but also because those first six lines appear to be reworking the language of Henley's poem. The famous last lines of "Invictus"—
It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
—become the lines "The master of my destiny" and "Oh, what unhappy twist of fate" in Witham's poem. Witham even recycles Henley's "straight gate" and turns it into "my gate." Here, then, is the opening of "Stray Cat":
   Oh, what unhappy twist of fate
Has brought you, homeless to my gate?
   The gate where once another stood
To beg for shelter, warmth and food.
   For from that day I ceased to be
      The master of my destiny.
In Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, Catherine Robson argues that "those who learn a work by heart and recite it frequently come to feel that it belongs to them, not the author of its being, or, even further, that it actually speaks for them." Moreover, in her Afterword, which studies the recitation and memorization of "Invictus" in particular, Robson claims that "at every turn 'Invictus' offers reciters an open opportunity to understand its expressions not as the contingent utterances of somebody else in a particular historical moment or geographical site, but rather as entirely personal to themselves in their own time of trial."

Witham's "Stray Cat" certainly offers one more piece of evidence for the far-reaching legacy of the memorized poem in popular culture, but "Stray Cat" extends the legacy that Robson maps in compelling ways, suggesting there might be a history of how the memorized poem has led to the creation of new poems as well. Indeed, Witham doesn't let "Invictus" speak for her but creates a companion poem to it through which she herself can speak. In other words, the probable memorization of "Invictus" has become a doorway to Authorship for Witham, and some of the very traits of "Stray Cat" that might be turn-offs for some literary critics ("twist of fate," "master of my destiny," etc.) are the product not of Witham's inability to use language, or some other deficiency on her part, but, rather, the product of her relationship to Henley's poem and her experience learning in an education system that told her that poems like Henley's were valuable enough to learn by heart.

Thus, the "badness" or the "goodness" of "Stray Cat" is not Witham's goodness or badness alone. It is also Henley's goodness or badness. And it is also the goodness or badness of the education system where Witham learned it—or perhaps where she was even forced to memorize it and thus understand it as a valuable poem to know and on which to model her own poems. That is, just as it takes a village to raise a child (or a cat), it also takes a village to produce a poem. Rather than keep those poems outside the gates of critical understanding, we here at P&PC prefer to side with the ethical poetics that Witham herself metaphorizes at the end of "Stray Cat": "Well...don't just stand there...come on in!"