To continue last week’s leitmotif of books of cat poetry, I have gone back to what many people consider the original and the best. Rather than a series of poems from the cats’ own perspective, like I Could Pee on This, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a series of narratives and how-tos about cats. It was first published in 1939 and has been in print ever since. Our library owns several versions with black and white drawings. We also have a winsomely illustrated version with only three of the poems called Growltiger’s Last Stand.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I have never seen the musical and can’t quite picture how it would work as a musical, but I know it was hugely popular on the stage and is available at our library to borrow on DVD.
In some circles T.S. Eliot is most famous for his serious poetry like “The Waste Land” or “The Hollow Men.” Many students of English literature are familiar with these poems (willingly or not). And many of these same students of literature are surprised that the mind that produced the dark and cynical lines of his serious poems could also produce his light and lilting poems about cats.
Compare this gem from “The Waste Land”:
“I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.”
And from “The Hollow Men”:
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
To the rollicking:
Macavity’s a mystery cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw –
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the flying sqad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime — Macavity’s not there!
Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer were a very notorious couple of cats.
As knockabout clowns, quick-change comedians, tight-rope walkers and acrobats
T.S. Eliot’s skill and dexterity with language show through in both cases, lilting or dark. These are great read-aloud poems that roll off the tongue. Some of our copies of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats are shelved in the children’s section, and the poems are certainly suitable for and loved by children, but I also recommend them for cat lovers and lovers of language.
Check the WRL catalog for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.