“The Naming of Cats,” Happy Belated Birthday to T. S. Elliot

Elliot

Some Kid whose name happens to be Elliot (Photo credit: rdpeyton)

Yes, you’ve heard me, when complaining about some of the annoying, pretentious, overly intellectual and philosophical self-important things written in and about poetry today, “I blame Elliot.” But please do not think I am all black and white about these things. I love Poe, but I hate his poem, “The Bells.” I enjoy Bukowski and yet want to throw rocks at his windows at the same time. Both Ginsberg and Whitman, whom I adore for many reasons, make me squeamish and embarrassed at times. I don’t even want to talk about it.

And please, just because they used lines from his poems we cannot blame T. S. Elliot for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Cats!” And I do adore “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” published in 1920 by Poetry Magazine, by the way, the poem which asks those monumental questions, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?” and “Do I dare to eat a peach?”

So what if he loved to throw in references to myths you were unfamiliar with, and quote languages you don’t speak? So what if my hero William Carlos Williams vehemently argued against much of what Elliot was about? For today, one day after Elliot’s birthday (He would be 125 years old if he were still among us), let us celebrate the good he did for poetry and there is much to talk about.

But I don’t really feel like it. I have a house to clean and I have to get to work soon, so instead let’s just listen to his poem “The Naming of Cats,” in his own voice. We can talk shop more later. For now, a belated birthday card, and a taking off of hats, to Elliot and cats.

The Naming of Cats

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo, or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey —
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter —
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkstrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum —
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover —
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

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12 thoughts on ““The Naming of Cats,” Happy Belated Birthday to T. S. Elliot

  1. Old Possum’s Book… sat on a little blue wicker rocker in the bathroom of my childhood home. Along with Spoon River Anthology and a book about the Chesapeake called Beautiful Swimmers. This poem took me right back. I can see the wallpaper pattern, and sun slanting in through the shutters. Thanks for waking the memory!

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  2. Well, I oscillate between thinking of my cat as George Orwell and George Gordon Noel (Lord Byron). Sometimes George likes to watch, and sometimes George likes to watch everything burn. I think that is the difference between the detached politicism Orwell wrote about and romanticism.

    I’m actually reading Areopagitica by Milton now. So much for wannabe intellectuals, but I call Julian Barnes to my defence: Of course we were pretentious – what else is youth for? ^^

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