Saturday, September 20, 2008

Cats and/or Vases

I guess the main reason for not waxing too witty at other people's expense is so you won't look too silly when you end up doing the same thing yourself.

For a long time now my phrase-of-convenience to sum up naive poetry was to say it was about cats and/or vases.

A brief rifle through the files reveals the following particularly top-lofty examples:

... there is a kind of poetry which is uninterested in asking hard questions about the world – physical or intellectual – which it inhabits. In these poems (it’s not difficult to multiply examples) there is a world, it can include the quasi-autobiographical “I”, as well as cats, and vases, and lovers, and beloveds, and – while any or all of these details may be the purest fiction – they convey their freight of meaning by making reference to a cosmos where such things do make sense. These poems, then, are not about themselves (except in the narrow sense of making reference to their own process of composition), or language, but about a reality unproblematically external to their text. The world is the problem here, not world the word.
– "Necessary Oppositions? Avant-garde vs. Traditional Poetry in NZ." Poetry NZ 21 (2000): 80-83.


I remember, the first time I ever edited a poetry magazine, receiving a long autobiographical poem by an American describing in detail various of the homosexual pick-ups he’d made, with long descriptions of all the sex they’d had. “Nobody in their right mind would print this,” was my first reaction. “It’s wildly overlength for our format; it’ll drive the subscribers (who still mostly tended to send in poems about cats and vases) insane; we might even be prosecuted for obscenity ...” But then a voice spoke to me from out of the darkness: “Fuck it, I was born to print poems like this.”
– Quoted in Iain Sharp, "Poetic Licence." Sunday Star Times: Sunday (1/2/04): 23.

And so on, and so on ...

Well, blow me down if I haven't just contributed a poem about a vase to the exhibition catalogue for Len Castle's latest collection of ceramics, Mountain to the Sea (on show in the Hawke’s Bay Museum and Art Gallery later this year, after which it'll be moving down the North Island from Whangarei to Wellington).

And, to add insult to injury, I've just had a poem about our pet cat Zero accepted for yet another anthology, due out next year.

What can I say? Sorry to all you cat-lovers and vase-aficionados out there. I misjudged you - or else I've become one of you. I'm not quite sure which. Anyway, here's the companion piece to the one in the Len Castle anthology. I think it says it all, really.


SH: … I think that one reason there is so much ugly antipathy to writers who are breaking form in any way is because people know that language taps an unpredictable power source in all of us. It’s not the same in the visual arts, where there are many abstract or form-breaking visual artists who enjoy wide popularity, are embraced by a critical establishment, and sell their work for a tremendous amount of money. You will see their work in museums and books about the work on large glass coffee tables. Try the same thing, with language, certainly in this culture, and you may find your writing lost. This is because words are used as buoys, and if they start to break up …
EF: If they’re stripped of their presumed meanings …
SH: Right. Then everything goes because words connect us to life.

– Edward Forster, Talisman Interview with Susan Howe (1990)

A monument being resolved upon
Dr. Donne
sent for a carver to make
the figure of an urn
charcoal fires being first made in his large study

& having put off all his clothes
winding-sheet in his hand
had this sheet put upon him
tied with knots at his head & feet
& his hands so placed as dead

Upon this Urn
he stood with his eyes
& with so much of the sheet turned aside
as might show his lean pale face

When the picture was fully finished
he caused it to be set
by his bedside
where it continued
& became his hourly object …

[Text sampled from Izaak Walton's "Life of Dr. John Donne" (1639)]


Tim Jones said...

A poem about a cat in a vase would seem the next logical step. Dare you accept the challenge?

Dr Jack Ross said...

I guess it could be like Gray's 'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes' - only maybe a bit less morbid.

Our cat does like to climb inside a wicker basket in the kitchen, and looks very cute staring out of the top, but I'm not sure that the world is quite ready to hear the extent of the indulgence extended by us to this particular incorrigible moggie.

Richard said...

I could never get into Donne much but I love Grey's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" I also know that poem about a cat by him...
Geoffrey Smart [I "ape" or echo him on part of my Blog with my "Baumgartner" chant]... wrote about his cat (real or imagined) - your Cat thing in Brief is good Jack and it fits well in EMO which is a mother of a work...hmm.."harder" than Giodorno or Imaginary Museum - but certainly very interesting (and sometimes disturbing) as are your main works I feel...

But you aren't selling out on Post Modernism with these cat poems - no? Derrida et al have their place (if anyone can actually understand anything he/they wrote!...) as much as cats...

My friend James '"Ant" "Drivel!"' Dolimore hates Postmodernism - he's all for real things and Richard Dawkins etc) - here is a line I once wrote about a cat:

"The cat sat on the mat eating a bat."

Max said...

"The cat sat on the mat eating a bat."
Hmm. I can sense Dr. Seuss rolling over in his grave right now.

"Vainglory".. I love this word, even better is "vainglorious".

I use it every time I can which is a lot when describing many of modern days' egos.