“For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry”

Poems about cats. (We already talked about poems and dogs, discussing Mary Oliver and Billy Collins.) I love cats. I don’t know that there are as many poems about cats, many poets being dog people, but that’s okay. I know of a few.

Today on The Writer’s Almanac, Garrison Keillor read a poem called “The Cats” by Ann Iverson. It’s got the right attitude for a poem about cats, “To find yourself so remarkable /  all the day long.” That is what cats do. That’s what got me started thinking about cat poetry. I found on the Poetry Foundation’s website an entire page about Cat Poems. The list includes “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” which I lauded here earlier this week, several other children’s rhymes, some very funny stuff, including the concrete poem (poem in a shape) “Magnificat. Brave Cat At Snifter Fishbowl” by George Starbuck (see image below), and some fine work by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, that English couple with all the marriage troubles.

But by far my favorite cat poem, and a very famous one indeed, is the section from Jubilate Agno written by Christopher Smart that begins “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.” You can read all about Mr. Smart at the Poetry Foundation, and many other places, but I encourage you, if you’re tired and need a lift, to read the poem about his cat. There is nowhere else in the English language a more beautiful hymn to a cat, and to their magical spiritual heavenly ordinary lives. The poem is too long to reproduce here, but you can find it here. And just a taste —

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.
Here is George Starbuck’s poem.  The cartoon (check out the awesome blog post of his life) of Christopher Smart and Jeoffry is by Paul Bommer.

Poetry and Jazz with Frank O’Hara and Billie Holiday

It’s not hard to understand why American poets might love jazz. The quintessential American music is the perfect companion language to American poetry.There are many fine collections of poetry about jazz, and these are just a couple I know of.

The Academy of American Poets offers a brief guide to Jazz Poetry, which it defines as “poetry necessarily informed by jazz music–that is, poetry in which the poet responds to a writes about jazz.” One of the poems cited is “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes, which includes sounds and rhythms just begging to be sung and danced. There are also links there to other jazz poetry anthologies.

One of the characteristics of jazz poetry that makes it hard for me to reproduce it on my blog is the irregular line breaks and shaped stanzas that ensure the poem is read in with the syncopated swing of the music is inspires. One poem I’m going to risk it all for is another poem about Billie Holiday, this one called “The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara. I remember first reading this poem as a young oncology nurse working in San Francisco, something about the urban hustle and detail, the frenetic pacing of the language, which stops dead in its tracks on the news of Holiday’s death without even so much as a concluding period — something about this poem spoke to everything I was feeling.

The Day Lady Died

By Frank O’Hara 

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing


In related news, the Smithsonian launched Jazz Appreciation Month in April of 2002, which only seems right — poetry and jazz can share the month and each delight the other. The poster for this years JAM is shown at the top of this post.

Sing and dance and read some poetry, peeps!

Baseball Poetry: May Swenson, Marianne Moore and the SF Giants

Happy Giants Home Opener!

I’m an ardent San Francisco Giants fan. I learned to love baseball as a parent of a Cupertino National Little League player — and now that my son doesn’t play Little League anymore, I’ve transferred that passion to the Giants.

“It’s about
the ball,
the bat,
the mitt,
the bases
and the fans.
It’s done
on a diamond,
and for fun.
It’s about
home, and it’s
about run.”

The first poem I am sharing today is by May Swenson. She’s a favorite poet of mine, because her language is so simple and direct. Nothing too tricky about her poems, yet they still have beauty, depth, and even mystery in them. This poem is called “An Analysis of Baseball” — which, as my smart Monta Vista High School student poets would say, is a a pretty ironic point of view. Be sure to click through the link to see the whole poem in its proper layout.

A longer, more elaborate and especially delightful poem by a famous American woman is “Baseball and Writing” by Marriane Moore. Miss Moore takes much of the language for her poem from sportscasters of her generation. Here’s the second stanza. (The poem reads better on the Poets.org site. Don’t ask me why I can’t get it to reproduce here correctly.) Make sure you read this one out loud.

It's a pitcher's battle all the way--a duel--
a catcher's, as, with cruel
   puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly
      back to plate.  (His spring 
      de-winged a bat swing.)
   They have that killer instinct;
   yet Elston--whose catching
   arm has hurt them all with the bat--
	when questioned, says, unenviously,
   "I'm very satisfied.  We won."
	Shorn of the batting crown, says, "We";
	robbed by a technicality.
Fanaticism?  No.  Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
   You can never tell with either
      how it will go
      or what you will do;
   generating excitement--
   a fever in the victim--
   pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
	Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
	To whom does it apply?
	Who is excited?  Might it be I?

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15658#sthash.AL4Vl3yT.dpuf

The photo at the top of this post is of Miss Moore throwing out the first pitch in Yankee Stadium in 1968.

There are a lot of baseball poems. A lot. I’m not sure what it is about poets, but baseball seems to be their sport. I wrote a poem for my daughter’s softball team which was published in a local journal, The Sand Hill Review, and one for my son’s baseball team which was included in the 2008 California Poets in the Schools statewide anthology.

I also noticed this poem — “Poem for Giants,” by Matthew Zapruder — on SFGate’s website, a few days ago.  It takes you on a bit of a journey, but a good poem will do that.


Go Giants!

“The Owl & the Pussycat” by Edward Lear

I’m feeling light-hearted today, desirous of rhyme and rhythm. This poem is such a delight and one that I suspect doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Make sure you read it out loud, at least to yourself, preferably to a small person while the TV is off. (If you click through to the Poetry Foundation or Poets.org sites, you can see it formatted correctly.)

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat

  by Edward Lear

The Owl and the Pussy-Cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat:
They took some honey, and plenty of money
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy, O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl,
How charmingly sweet you sing!
Oh! let us be married; too long we have tarried,
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the bong-tree grows;
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

For a deeper dive into the value of this poem, enjoy this article by David Orr, in which he describes helping his father recover from a stroke by using poetry. “Orr’s father tells him, “I really like the runcible spoon,” and that’s close enough to love for me. “

“Tonight” by Agha Shahid Ali (with hyperlinks and audio)

What a find! A phenomenal poem, in a traditional and beautiful form, with both hyperlinks to comfort those used to interactive web play and an audio of the poet reading. Read, understand, inquire, listen, enjoy! One of the Poetry Foundation’s “Annotated Poems” — there are even lessons plans and teaching tips.

Agha Shahid Ali is superbly active politically and lyrically, and one of the most interesting poets to read currently writing. IMHO. His poem, “Tonight” is a ghazal, but rather than tell you all about it, I invite you to explore for yourself. Whether you’re searching for poets from India, Muslim poets, poetic forms, Emily Dickinson, the Bible, or Mughal architecture, you’ll find something to love here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.


“Negotiations with a Volcano” by Naomi Shihab (PAD Prompt #26) Nye

Today I went looking for a poem to go with world events. Browsing email this morning, I was struck by the power and beauty of the images of Tungurahua volcano that erupted in Ecuador yesterday. ( Incredible images courtesy of EarthSky.org). According to the Associted Press, Tungurahua is from the Quichua word tunguri (throat) and rahua (fire): “Throat of Fire.”


I know of many references to volcanoes in poetry; Emily Dickinson alone wrote many poems about the terrifying possibilities. I love Naomi Shihab Nye’s work, but was unfamiliar with this poem. I especially like it for its domestic details and its prayer-like quality. And that wonderful title, the idea that one might negotiate with the natural world, with whatever gods or goddesses might be listening — such a great tradition of poetry she is following.

Negotiations with a Volcano
by Naomi Shihab Nye

We will call you “Agua” like the rivers and cool jugs.
We will persuade the clouds to nestle around your neck
so you may sleep late.
We would be happy if you slept forever.
We will tend the slopes we plant, singing the songs
our grandfathers taught us before we inherited their fear.
We will try not to argue among ourselves.
When the widow demands extra flour, we will provide it,
remembering the smell of incense on the day of our Lord.

Please think of us as we are, tiny, with skins that burn easily.
Please notice how we have watered the shrubs around our houses
and transplanted the peppers into neat tin cans.
Forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,
when the rains do not come, or they come too much,
and swallow our corn.
It is not easy to be this small and live in your shadow.

Often while we are eating our evening meal
you cross our rooms like a thief,
touching first the radio and then the loom.
Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,
they burn like paper, we wake with our hands full of ash.

How can we live like this?
We need to wake and find our shelves intact,
our children slumbering in their quilts.
We need dreams the shape of lakes,
with mornings in them thick as fish.
Shade us while we cast and hook—
but nothing else, nothing else.

The volcano referenced in this poem is Agua, in Guatemala. This great site (Smithsonian Institute) has great information.

For anyone who is used to writing a poem-a-day with me, and comes on Saturdays to look for a prompt, try writing a poem of prayer, bargaining, or negotiation with a force of nature: oh dear mountain; please deep ocean; no, no, not me snow and rain! What exactly would you be asking for? What are you hoping to be spared from?

Lucille Clifton Reads “homage to my hips”

I’ve recently been teaching about poetry (stewarding young poets to write their own poems) in Fremont California at Gomes Elementary School. This experience was brought to me and all the kids at Gomes courtesy of their PTA and California Poets in the Schools. For my part, I had 120 fourth graders. It was grueling, but every minute I would do again.

One lesson we do I call “Simile and Your Body.” I start with “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti, which I shared earlier this week, discussing how a body part can have feelings. Then we talk about all the parts of our bodies we can write about (brains, fingers, bones, feet, faces, elbows). Then we read “homage to my hips” by Lucille Clifton. This poem makes it safe to start a discussion abut the parts of our bodies that sometimes get laughed at, that we might be embarrassed about: our too big teeth or noses, our “fat” stomachs, our ears that stick out, our skin that’s not a color we see on T.V. very often. Our eyes that need glasses. Our legs that need wheelchairs. Pride in our bodies can go hand in hand with confusion, anger, joy. It’s also useful to give kids an example of a “real” poem that doesn’t conform orthographically to what they’re learning in school.

There is so much on Facebook and in my email Inbox right now about poetry. I wish it were always this way (except I would probably fall over from exhaustion). This video appeared like a lucky charm in my News Feed today. Enjoy Ms. Clifton performing it, and read it for yourself at this link.

homage to my hips
By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

Dog Park Rules

To honor the opening of Cupertino’s Mary Avenue Dog Park, I’ve written a little villanelle. They’ve posted the poem at their website, but I offer it here, too. I read this on Tuesday at my April Fool’s Day reading, and it seemed to appeal to the people there. I hope dogs like it too.

Especially for my dog-loving friends, Michelle, Cristina, and Alice.

Dog Park Rules (A Villanelle)

Watch out for balls and feel the winter sun.
Remember who you came with, when you came.
Run and run and don’t forget to run.

The most important rule is to have fun.
Smell all the smells, then smell them all again.
Watch out for balls and feel the spring-time sun.

Spin your body, spin and when you’ve spun
yourself into a puddle, change the game.
Run and run and don’t forget to run.

Sniff the spots that human noses shun.
Pee and pee and all good places claim.
Watch out for balls and feel the autumn sun.

Stay with that stick until the chewing’s done.
Leap and wiggle your small body like a flame.
Run and run and don’t forget to run.

And now the Dog Park rules are almost done,
and you will learn them as you learned your name.
Watch out for balls and feel the summer sun.
Run and run and don’t forget to run.

For more dog poems, check out Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, fans of dogs and fine poets.

Those of you interested in more information about villanelles, check this out and this.

Christina Rossetti “A Birthday”

For the second day of National Poetry Month, I offer one of my all time favorite poems, “A Birthday” by English poet, Christina Rossetti.

A Birthday
By Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

I often teach with this poem, because I know it by heart and love to look at the faces of young students when I’m reciting it for them. Nothing commands their attention better than a poem read from memory, a true performance. There are also so many visual images, and some strange and bizarre words that make us laugh (click through “vair” to see what I mean, poor Sciurus vulgaris).  The poem lends itself to fruitful discussions of simile and metaphor, and is a convenient opening for a lesson about how our bodies have feelings that our minds sometimes are afraid to articulate.

Drop me a comment about this poem, or share one of your own.

314px-Geoffrey_of_Anjou_Monument with vair lined mantle

Enamel effigy of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou on his tomb at Le Mans Cathedral, wearing a vair-lined mantel.


Starting off the Poetry Exchange with David Denny

To celebrate the first day of Poetry Month, I thought we should start with a poem by the first Cupertino Poet Laureate, David Denny. Read his poem “Fool in the Attic” where it was first published in the May 2007 journal Perspectives. If you’re interested in more of Dave’s work, you can buy his chapbook, Plebeian on the Front Porch at Finishing Line Press, or either of his books Fool in the Attic and Man Overboard: A Tale of Divine Compassion on Amazon.

Fool in the Attic

by David Denny

Go ahead, try to ignore him, that
gregarious wise guy in your head.
Try as you might to bring your body
under the discipline of the breath
and use it as a drill to dig a well
to the soul, again and again his
incessant chatter will haul the bucket
back to the surface. The Buddhists
call him Monkey Mind, recalling
the numbing scat of our hairy relatives
in the canopy as we walk through
the jungle of the post-modern world.

What he wants more than anything
is to see you climbing awkwardly
into the trees after him, narrowly
missing his tail as he leaps
from branch to wagging branch,
mocking you with his screeching
and wailing. Again and again
you must return your gaze back
to the path before you. Again and ever
again turning back, turning back,
imagining a Someday when the nerves
in your legs don’t ache to follow him.