I’d read everything else that T.S. Eliot produced — in terms of verse and drama, at least — but when I ran across a reference to Possum’s Book of Practical Cats in a Pound biography I’ve been working my way through (noting simply that Pound had nothing good to say about it), I realized I hadn’t read it. I found dug through the poetry-books-to-read on my shelf, found it, and dug in.
Well, I can certainly see why Pound had nothing to say about it; in fact, it reads like poetry for kids, and, well… can you imagine Ezra Pound writing anything for kids? Or even liking anything written for kids?
The book is, in the end, cute and funny doggerel about cats, and Eliot was goofing off as he wrote these poems. Which is to say, he was having immense fun, you can be certain.1 You certainly need to have a sense of humor to enjoy the book, and in fact, it’s something I’d be quicker to give to a cat-lover than to a poetry fan…
Except for one thing…
All the cat lovers around me these days are Korean, and… well, old Possum saw fit to throw in some racial slurs, especially “chink.” While it made me uncomfortable, I have the luxury of backing away and mumbling to myself that it was a long time ago Eliot wrote these poems, and this kind of thing was common in those days. But it makes me sad that a book of poems as otherwise cute and fun as this one are marred by racist epithets.
Some might say it’s me being “too politically correct” but frankly, I wouldn’t read this book to a kid — or if I did, I would be swapping certain words (like “cat” or “fink” in place of the original “chink”) — but the book seems to be all but made for reading to kids. I wouldn’t give it away, and I feel saddened by that, because, as I say, the book is otherwise quite fun and cute.
Then again, I’m sure there’s much more like it that’s been written sense, sans racist language. At this point in my life, I’m not particularly drawn to doggerel written for kids, so I don’t know; I only read this because it was a book by a modernist poet (connected to Pound, no less) sitting on my shelf unread.
As for the illustrations by Edward Gorey, they add immeasurably to the text, in many cases furnishing each poem with not just one but two images. I was impressed by his attention to the poems, and the grim cuteness of the images, which had me cackling with glee.
Oh, and by the way, I had forgotten that some horrid musical had been based on this book. Ten minutes of the thing on Youtube was enough to make me shudder and put it back out of my mind.
1. It reminds me of something a poet friend of mine said when I showed her drafts of the long-poem I worked on in Canada, just before leaving for Korea, retelling the story of the Taiping Rebellion. (Titled, of course, Taiping!) She read what I’d written, which I’d felt was quite fun in places, and asked me, “So, are you going to start having fun with some of these poems?”
I was taken aback, as I’d been having plenty of fun, thanks very much. I’m not sure the samples I’ve posted over at Stuff to Read really convey it, but hey, you tell me…