Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, Illustrated by Edward Gorey

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…

2 thoughts on “Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, Illustrated by Edward Gorey

  1. I wasn’t going to comment (I’m not all that interested in poetry, though Eliot’s “Cats” is one of the very few famous poetry books that I actually read – never read Pound, though), but then I ran across this article in the New York Times today.


    I find this trend of ‘covering up our embarrassing past’ worrying. Under the guise of ‘cultural sensitivity,’ we seem to be on our way of forgetting the evil mistakes of the past (and repeating those mistakes).

    My favorite example, Huckleberry Finn and the ‘N-word’ – the entire point of the book was that even with the indoctrination that Huck Finn received, he was willing to go to Hell to help Jim, the slave. How can that point be made, and how can the evils of slavery be realistically portrayed without the use of the ‘N-word’ commonly used at the time?

    In Korea, how do we expect the future generations to know what happened during Japanese colonialization if the older generation destroys all traces of Japanese occupation, like the old Seoul City Hall? (And then complain that these kids don’t know any history, or the youngsters do not give history appropriate weight?)

    [A related aside: I read an op-ed in a Korean newspaper a few weeks back, where a food critic, who seems to be in his 60s, wanted to change the name of ‘boodae chigae 부대찌개’ into some other name, because the name reminds us that this dish was made during wartime, out of thrown-out leftovers of US army food during the 1950s. My father tells me that one of the reason that the boodae chigae is so spicy and hot is that the hot spice was needed to cover the taste of trash which went with the food, such as cigarette butts. Ironically, the people who ate this leftover stew actually ate better than most Koreans at the time. IMO, this is something that needs to be known more by the new generations; not hidden. Very few students nowadays realize how poor Korea was only fifty years ago.]

    I actually prefer the approach Warner Bros. use when they issue old Bugs Bunny cartoons on DVD, where they state that, while they recognize some of the images in the old cartoons are inappropriate, it would be wrong to pretend they didn’t exist. (Yes, their rationale allows them to make profits off of old cartoons, but that doesn’t make it any less correct). It’s certainly better than the Disney approach, which is to hide it in their vaults (e.g. Songs of the South, which is the only major Disney cartoon feature which I have not yet seen).

  2. Junsok,

    True, I suppose another way of reading the book to one’s kid would be to talk about the nasty word. I would just feel awful reading a book to a kid, especially an Asian kid — and saying that word. You know, when I was first studying Korean, the prevalence of the syllable 구 (“gook”) in so many words — especially names for countries, but also in the culinary sense — was kind of hard for me to get over. The aversion to saying that word was so deep-seated.

    Kind of like the N-word, though, somehow, I ended up for a while using it sarcastically to mock people I felt were being racist, probably because anti-black feelings are the most obvious and familiar example in media to North Americans, even from places like Saskatchewan where the most prevalent racism is probably against the Native Canadians, not blacks or Asians or Jews or any other group. (I’ve since stopped using the word that way, too.)

    I agree with you that it’s bad to sanitize the past, and made the same criticism of the redevelopment of Seoul City Hall when it was first announced. In a lot of places, colonial architecture is preserved: Jakarta, for all its hyperdevelopment, has kept a chunk of old Batavia around in original form, and when you walk there, you realize: this place is where the Dutch colonizers lived. This was the center of their colonial control of this part of the world. The history is real and present in a way one forgets in the mega-malls and fancy roadways. It’s troubled me that in Korea, there’s an effort to eradicate every last trace of Japanese occupation… but I think it’s also integral to shaping the ongoing resentment of Japan in ways useful to politicians and especially political extremists.

    It’s just hard to present a text that contains racism, without seeming like you endorse it. I kind of feel like I’d rather write some poems of my own for kids. And I should note I don’t have a problem with the Twain so much particularly because it’s a realistic depiction of a racist society in which, as you point out, some characters are portrayed as transcending all the brainwashing. (Well, in the versions I’ve seen in film: I haven’t actually read both those novels (Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn), believe it or not, just one, and I don’t remember it as it was a long time ago.)

    As for Pound: don’t read him unless you have a year to devote six or eight hours a week to it, and the willingness to suffer of a fiery-eyed martyr. (Well, the Cantos, anyway.) I suspect you likely wouldn’t enjoy it even then! :)

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