Sunday Poem – Katha Pollitt

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In the precarious balance of music and poetry, music has won this week – every day apart from Thursday has been filled with playing carols in various places.  On Monday I took some of the band to Asda to play Christmas carols to the lucky shoppers – we made £135 which will go towards providing uniforms, music and instruments to the children in the band.  The children in the band seem to love playing in the supermarkets – I ussed to love it as well – it was when I made a connection between doing something I loved and the ability to get money for doing the something – it was when I realised it was possible…

On Tuesday I took a different group of children from the band to Anchor Court Sheltered Housing in Dalton, which provides supported housing for older people.  They kindly provided us with pop and tea and chocolates so I sent the children back to their parents all sugared up…

On Wednesday we played for Ormsgill Primary School’s Carol Concert – the school choir sang with us which was impressive as we’d had no rehearsals together – we nearly came unstuck in ‘We Three Kings’ as the band and the choir decided to do the ‘oh….oh….’ bit at different times but I was relieved to see that we had five verses to practice getting it together! I did get a bit hysterical at this stage and nearly got the giggles, the type of giggles there is no coming back from –  but managed to hold it together.

On Thursday I spent the day in Grasmere running a ‘Real Live Writers’ workshop with some Year 7 and Year 10 pupils from a school in Workington – it was a lovely day and we got some great feedback from the teachers.  On the way back from Grasmere I stopped off at Newby Bridge to meet Grenville from John Packers, an instrument manufacturer and picked up a brand new flugel horn for the junior band which saved on delivery costs…and then Friday I was playing at a school fete with Barrow Steelworks Band, did some brass teaching in the afternoon and then went to Brewery Poets, my critiquing group in the evening.

I should add I was teaching Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as well of course – I didn’t only teach on Friday afternoon 🙂

But this weekend has been nice – I’ve done nothing but read poetry.  I’ve actually been making my way through Ovid’s Metamorphoses which I started last weekend – I’m now up to the bit where the raven has told the truth which means his feathers are turned black.  I’ve written two poems that have imagery from Ovid since I started reading – that is more poems in the last week than I have probably written in the last month – which is quite exciting.

Oh – and other exciting things that happened this week – the new Poetry Review arrived with two of my poems in it. I read the whole of it cover to cover yesterday as well – in between reading Ovid – favourite poems so far from Jack Underwood and Liz Berry – both have first collections coming out next year I think – from Faber and Chatto respectively – so I will be buying as soon as they appear…

But the most exciting thing this week is to have a poem by Katha Pollitt for the Sunday Poem.  I met Katha at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival – she did a fantastic reading so I bought her latest book which is out with Seren called ‘The Mind-Body Problem’ which you can order from http://www.serenbooks.com

Katha Pollitt is the author of six books of poetry and prose and is a widely published journalist, essayist and critic.  For many years she has been a columnist at The Nation magazine.  She has won many awards and prizes including the National Book Critics Circle award for her first book of poetry, fellowships from the Guggenheim and Whiting foundations, two National Magazine Awards and an American Book Award for lifetime achievement.  She lives in New York City, and as far as I know, ‘The Mind-Body Problem’ is her first UK publication.

There was a slightly mortifying moment in Aldeburgh when I was doing my Close Reading on a poem by Edward Hirsch (one of my fave poets) and I said that I hadn’t researched into him because I didn’t want to be disappointed by anything I found out and that I was just going to concentrate on the poetry – not realising of course, or maybe forgetting that there were American poets in the audience and of course they would know Edward Hirsch – me and my flappy mouth! Anyway, Katha was very nice about it and came up to me and told me ‘You wouldn’t be disappointed – he is a lovely man!’

So there was that…anyway, I was very happy when Katha said I could use a poem from her book as my Sunday Poem.  One of my other favourites in the book is the title poem actually which starts ‘When I think of my youth I feel sorry not for myself/but for my body.’

The book made me laugh out loud on lots of occasions – but it is also poignant and feisty as well – there  is a section of poems called ‘After the Bible’ and the first poem is called ‘Expulsion’ and begins ‘Adam was happy – now he had someone to blame/for everything: shipwrecks, Troy,/the grey face in the mirror.’

The poem finishes with the Tree of Knowledge mourning the passing of its one moment of being the centre of attention.  But the poem I’ve chosen fits in nicely with my Ovid reading and it is one of those rare things – a wonderful poem about cats! I chose this poem because I love how Katha gets into the skin of what a cat is, and manages to put her finger on the fundamental difference between human and animal.  This poem is funny, but it is also wise – ‘grace is/only a cat’s way/ of getting without fuss from one place to another’.  I think this poem also is beautifully lyric and measured – the line endings keep the movement going through the poem.  I like the turn in the middle of the poem ‘Two cats together are like two strangers’ which feels like a hinge or a corner in the poem where it goes off again in a different direction.  I also like cats as well and this poem made me think yes, this is exactly what it is like – which is what a poem should do, I think.

I hope you enjoy – and do go and buy the book from Seren or Inpress rather than Amazon!

Two Cats – Katha Pollitt

It’s better to be a cat than to be a human.
Not because of their much-noted grace and beauty –
their beauty wins them no added pleasure, grace is
only a cat’s way

of getting without fuss from one place to another –
but because they see things as they are.  Cats never mistake a
saucer of milk for a declaration of passion
or the crook of your knees for

a permanent address.  Observing two cats on a sunporch,
you might think of them as a pair of Florentine bravoes
awaiting through slitted eyes the least lapse of attention –
then slash! the stiletto

or alternately as a long married couple, who hardly
notice each other but find it somehow a comfort
sharing the couch, the evening news, the cocoa.
Both these ideas

are wrong.  Two cats together are like two strangers
cast up by different storms on the same desert island
who manage to guard, despite the utter absence
of privacy, chocolate,

useful domestic articles, reading material,
their seperate solitudes.  They would not dream of
telling each other their dreams, or the plots of old movies,
or inventing a bookful

of coconut recipes.  Where we would long ago have
frantically shredded our underwear into signal
flags and be dancing obscenely about on the shore in
a desperate frenzy,

they merely shift on their haunches, calm as two stoics
weighing the probably odds of the soul’s immortality,
as if to say, if a ship should happen along we’ll
be rescued.  If not, not.

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5 responses »

  1. Like the poem greatly!! I myself am now nativitied out! I get invited to so many events, but after the 963rd version of away in a manger I begin to lose my cherubic good nature! Glad that the carolling went so well – it makes our job so worthwhile, although roll on Wednesday!

  2. Wonderful poem! It does indeed capture cats perfectly… Also interesting to hear that you made the connection between doing something you love and making money at such an early age. I spent most of my life believing the opposite! Luckily I have found out just in time (I hope!) how wrong I’ve been… never mind, all the experience in between can feed my writing now… Looking forward to meeting you in 2014!

    • Hi Maggie – yes, never thought of it that way before. My brass band had a system where all the money made from carolling or concerts was divided between the players that were there and a general band account. I still remember my first real paid gig – playing second trumpet in ‘Singing in the Rain’ at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester with my trumpet teacher Paul Bennett – who said that the most important thing I was to learn was to run to the bar in the interval as soon as the last note had been played and order him a pint….
      See you in Cumbria in 2014!

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