Poetry, Madness, and a Cat Named Jeoffry

April 28, 2017
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This is part one of a two-part series on the value of poetry, why no one reads it, and why you probably should.

As a grad student in my early twenties, I spent a lot of time by myself. I read books and wrote seminar papers. I lost hours to transcription, piecing together the handwritten letters and diaries of strangers from centuries past. I was lonely, so I got a dog. I named him Jeoffry, after—of all creatures—a cat. Jeoffry, the cat, lived in the 18th century, and unlike most cats lost to history, Jeoffry’s memory was preserved in verse, with great diligence and affection, by English poet and madman Christopher Smart.

Smart was committed to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in 1757, suffering, it was said, from a form of “religious mania.” During his confinement, Smart penned line after line of quietly jubilant, and often bizarre, praise to God. Jubilate Agno, or “praise to the lamb,” is a poem preserved in fragments.1 In the section devoted to Jeoffry, Smart considers the perfectly ordinary yet astonishing creatureliness of his cat (“a mixture of waggery and gravity,” who “sharpens his paws by wood,” and whose dalliance with prey is a kind of grace, allowing at times for escape).

The fragment begins simply: “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry,” then continues for 72 lines, in the poet’s characteristic enumerative style, ending on the stirring and mysterious note, “For he can creep.” Smart’s was a wild religious imagination turned, always and urgently, back toward earth. Whether despite his madness or because of it, he perceived a world suffused with divine grace. In Smart’s poetic vision, God’s gracious good character is revealed in the smallest and most inconsequential things, right down to the “Gnat” (a reminder that “it is good for man and beast to mend their pace”) and the “Humble-Bee” (“who loves himself in solitude and makes his honey alone”). If I were to praise God in the manner of Smart, I would look not to the setting sun or the immense, star-filled sky, but to the sound the door makes when it opens, or the way a button holds fast to a shirt.

As much as I owe to the Psalms, it was Smart who taught me to praise. Under his poetic instruction, I learned to pay closer attention to the details of my life—to take careful and deliberate pleasure in seemingly unremarkable things. My Jeoffry, for instance, was wonderful—a miracle—completely and perfectly a dog. I loved him for his exuberance and lolling tongue, his abundant charcoal coat, his embarrassing manner toward squirrels. I felt great bursts of gratitude for his click-click across the floor, his greed for water, his dumb and inexhaustible forgiveness.

Whatever the true nature or cause of Smart’s madness, one thing is certain: in Jubilate Agno, he betrays a way of seeing that is not, strictly speaking, usual. That’s clear in his playfulness with language (“For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command”) and in his inexhaustible gratitude for all manner of creatures and things (he rejoices in rainwater, the Goldfish, the Postmaster General and “all conveyancers of letters,” the Scythian stag). In Jubilate Agno, even the evaporation of sweat is rightly understood as an occasion of praise (“the ASCENT of VAPOURS is the return of thanksgiving from all humid bodies”).

Smart’s writing is manic, to be sure, filled with esoteric allusions and odd turns of phrase.2 Still, I think we would do well to cultivate a bit of his variety of madness in ourselves.

Reading poems—regularly, patiently, attentively—is one way to do that. Poetry, even poetry about the manner and movements of a cat, can train us in new habits of seeing. It can make us better observers of the world around us (and in better observing the world, we learn better to love it—to embrace the whole beautiful and painful truth of it). At its best, poetry can rescue us from the tyranny of boredom, or the pain of loneliness. It can make us more grateful people, and more compassionate. To borrow the words of poet Naomi Shihab Nye, it provides us a way of being “continually restored to the miracle of ordinary life.”

I’m making ambitious claims for a genre that almost no one reads (Wisława Szymborska, in her poem “Some People Like Poetry,” puts the number at “something like two per thousand,” and it’s a commonplace among poets that the most devoted readers of poetry are poets themselves). This is partly poetry’s failure. In my years of regularly reading poetry, I’ve encountered plenty of contemporary poems that seem deliberately to confuse or alienate the reader. But poetry’s diminished audience is also a failure of our culture and time to nurture the patience and discipline a poem requires.

It’s true—making time for poetry, and reading it carefully, takes time. To read a poem well, we must grow still, be quiet, pay attention. I no longer enjoy the freedom of my twenties, taking long runs with my dog in the evening, or waking to wide open days of mostly unstructured time. I’m married now, I work outside the home, and I have three small boys. Still, I’ve found that poetry fits quite naturally into the rhythms and rituals of my daily life. This is partly a matter of form: poems, while they demand patience and care, are typically not very long. Unlike an essay or novel, a poem can be read in-between times—while the kids are splashing in the bath, when making coffee before breakfast, or in the space between meetings at work. And poems can be read to children, even very young children, whose inherent playfulness and natural delight in the music of language make them perhaps the best hearers and receivers of poems.

Finding time for poetry in the middle of our sometimes-frenzied lives can help us live more deliberately. A poem requires more of us than watching a movie trailer on our lunch break, or scrolling through images on Instagram, but by submitting ourselves to poetry’s instruction, we can learn to attend more carefully to the beauty and goodness in the world around us.

In “Having it Out with Melancholy,” the late Jane Kenyon describes the experience of coming out of a period of depression. It’s the ordinary grace of waking to a summer morning that brings her, at least for a time, back to life:

… Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright unequivocal eye.3

Sometimes, it’s the smallest, most ordinary thing that restores us—the dog, breathing in and out; the bright eye of a songbird; the cat, “wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness,” cleaning his forepaws, fetching a cork.

Poets like Kenyon and Smart can teach us to be better and more patient observers of the world, deepening our gratitude for the everyday goodness in it. But this way of seeing takes practice.

The practice is worth it. Like most things that take time or require discipline, poetry rewards our efforts. To teach ourselves the kind of attention modeled in Smart’s manic chorus of praise—to cultivate that same deep and abiding affection for the world, in all its tiny particulars—can be a great gift. Life will invariably bring suffering and pain. Yet in our loneliness or grief, afternoon light will still pour through the kitchen window, illuminating the mushrooms on the cutting board, the two lemons on the counter, the open jar. There will still be twilights, and mornings. The birds will still sing.

In the second installment of this two-part series, I’ll continue to make the case that poetry is worth your time, performing a close reading of one of my favorite contemporary poems and considering, among other things, the power of the particular, the Mars rover, and love.
About the Author
  • Aleisa Dornbierer-Schat is the editor of the Dordt University alumni magazine, the Voice. She lives in Sioux Center, Iowa, with her husband and three boys. She enjoys running, cooking, and reading, and she’s interested in recovering the historical and literary voices of women (often preserved in letters).

  1. Jubilate Agno wasn’t published until 1939; it is preserved in fragments labelled A through D. 

  2. The strange esotericism of Smart’s writing is on full display in the following lines from Fragment B, Part 2, in which Smart exhorts a host of obscure biblical characters to join in his litany of praise:

    Let Esli rejoice with the Soal, who is flat and spackles for the increase of motion.
    Let Nagge rejoice with the Perriwinkle — ‘for the rain it raineth every day.’
    Let Anna rejoice with the Porpus, who is a joyous fish and of good omen.
    Let Phanuel rejoice with the Shrimp, which is the childrens fishery.
    Let Chuza rejoice with the Sea-Bear, who is full of sagacity and prank.
    Let Susanna rejoice with the Lamprey, who is an eel with a title. 

  3. This poem appears in Kenyon’s collection Constance, published by Graywolf Press in 1993. 

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  1. This piece made me think of e.e. cummings’ poem “i thank You God for most this amazing.” Thankfulness is a religious experience even for the irreligious and poetry can capture that so well, just as Kenyon does in much of her work. Thanks for writing.