If a poem is about a cat
many come to read and love
one of the truest loves they know.

If a poem is about a river
or the ocean or a sunset
interest is sure to grow.

If a poem artfully confesses
a deep yearning or a wound,
many gather to console–

if it surfs toward sex
the text is dropped
for a lace camisole.

But if it’s just about a stark
unsentimental basic loneliness
grasping a truth by metaphor

chances are its limits
may be transcendental
but mean nothing at the bar.

*with apologies to my friend, Marta Nussbaum Steele, who once presented a poem by this title on the dissecting table of a poetry  workshop in Harvard Square.  I had been reading T.S. Eliot’ s “The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism” and was enjoying a classic double martini when these lines occurred in the space of ten minutes.

13 responses »

  1. Is this why Sylvia Plath is considered such a great poet with her hauntingly unhappy words? But I also love Eliot’s “Practical Cats” and Wordsworth and, — yes and Cynthia Jobin! A lovely little poem full of truths, I know that you will keep them acoming! Cheerio, Jane

    • Hello Jane! I am always mystified when the lines simply “occur” and I can use them simply as they flow…..also mystified by the selection of Sylvia Plath as a “great poet” by the gurus of Academia. I’ve tried to like her poetry but so far have not succeeded. “Old Possum’ s Book of Practical Cats,” on the other hand, is a perennial favorite, as well as Wordsworth–who seems to fall in and out of favor but is, in the long run, a real “keeper.” With age, I have even come to appreciate “Four Quartets.” Thank you for your good and supportive words this morning!

  2. This poem is a joy Cynthia! its just so different, and Im not really sure I know what I mean by that! Bu our youngest daughter used to hate having to read Sylvia Plath poems at school, including the subsequent dissection which actually turned her against poetry for years, not just Plath, but dissection of poetry in general for purposes of A level study. The said daughter, however, just bought me Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats for Christmas! Its a 75 years anniversary edition illustrated by Axel Scheffer, famous recently for The Gruffalo. The combination of these words and wonderful illustrations can keep me quite content in my own little bubble for hours 😊

    • “….not really sure what I mean by that…” works well for me! The itch to dissect a poem belongs most properly to practising poets who want to discover how and why a poem works. Others—the critics, the pedants–should not be allowed to hold sway over the young who are neither interested nor ready for such analysis; for these there should be the more romantic experience of poetry….pleasure in sound and sense. Maybe we need more real poets teaching poetry, but I doubt many would want to, and the training for exams would likely be missing.
      Anyway, I love your comment, as usual, because it gets me thinking. Very sweet daughter you have there, to give you that book!

      • Just a snippet of interest for you (well it interested me) – Ive just joined a writing group (scary for me!) and the man who runs it is quite a well known local poet. The other week he went into a school and read one of his poems to some 11year olds. It was called Petals and was about the end of a romantic relationship. When he asked them what they thought it was about three answers were

        1 Your dog died

        2 Your brother went to live in Australia

        3 Your grandmother died

        He simply allowed them their own ideas.

        • I love it! T.S. Eliot, himself a Nobel prize winner for literature said (in the work about poetry and criticism I refer to in the footnote above), that when he was a boy…..”the only pleasure I got from Shakespeare was the pleasure of being commended for reading him; had I been a child of more independent mind, I should have refused to read him at all.”

          ( did I just say “the footnote above”…..!)

  3. ah, yes, Cynthia,and I muse, do we like art because it helps us recognize truth we have experienced? Because it names, embodies a truth we long for? Because it helps us see beauty, is itself an experience of beauty that makes us sing with resonance? Your poem here is poignant in helping me name a truth. Thank you!

    • Those beauty and truth questions will probably continue to haunt forever, I guess…and the answers may be as many as there are individuals….I’ll spare you yet another quotation of the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” 🙂

  4. This is fabulous, and I love what Christine added. I must say, I’m not much for poetry dissection–you either like it or you don’t, understand it or not–dissection is for the biology labs and pithed frogs. My 2 cents.

  5. What a fantastic poem! I think that the success of Billy Collins has got much to do with his simplicity. Philip Larkin is rather popular (for a poet anyhow) and he has got a lot of nostalgia/fear of death/ruminative poems.

    • Collins..Larkin…both poets I enjoy and respect, for different reasons. I keep them on my nearest shelf of poetry, because reading them I learn much about making poems. Another perrenial–and much neglected–poet for me is William Stafford. I read him when I need to be pulled back on a right road…

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