Guard your roving thoughts with a jealous care, for speech is but the dealer of thoughts, and every fool can plainly read in your words what is the hour of your thoughts.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Use this warning as a stimulus for a piece of persuasive, discursive or imaginative writing that expresses your perspective about a significant concern or idea that you have engaged with in ONE of your prescribed texts.
What cats don’t know about the world isn’t worth knowing. This applies to poetry as well, of which cats are a species. Miss Mischa, the cat in David Malouf’s poem ‘Eternal Moment at Poggia Madonna’ tells us something valuable about cats, and poets, and poetry, but it is something to which teachers (who often fancy themselves cat-lovers as well as poetry-lovers) might greatly object. But even in that, Miss Mischa offers a lesson about discretion, and valour, and sleeping on things which are disagreeable and intractable.
How do you approach poetry? Is it reverently? Discretely? Affectionately but not familiarly? If so, then pass on – you are no fool, and the hour of my thoughts needs no guarding from you. Or do you do a fingertip trawl through each line? Do you crumble it apart like a dinner roll looking for similes and adjectival phrases? Do you lose the wood for the lexical trees until all that’s left is a mess around the high-chair from which you’ve been feeding on mashed-up verse? Is this vivisection of glittering moments how you pay your mortgage? Is the death of the poem a sad but necessary consequence of showing a class how it works?
You wouldn’t do it to a cat, which nature has equipped with more defences than a poem. Why, then, do it to a poem? Behold Miss Mischa, whose essential nature cannot be separated from the elegance of her design, the integrity of each marvelous part. Does dissecting a cat’s eye to identify the tapetum lucidum really explain the gleam of that wicked, knowing gaze in the dark? Malouf, himself a cat-like soul, writes as much about poetry as he does about Miss M. in ‘Eternal Moment.’ The ‘cool reclusion’, the presence of warmth across ages of human time, the immanent moments in which gods and matter meet – as with Miss Mischa, so with a poem.
Look at the picture of Miss Mischa in your mind’s eye, curled around herself. Can you fix on exactly where her sinuous spine ends and her tail begins? This is a trick – it’s not just that you can’t find that place, but it’s pointless to try. The attempt just shows how little you understand the nature of a cat.
The perfection of cats, like poems, has something to do with wholeness, completeness. In all cats and some very good poems, we can see Aristotle’s definition of perfection: a thing so good that nothing of the kind could be better, and which has attained its purpose. The subtle and delicate elegance of Malouf’s poem, which takes on the ineffable qualities of the cat, shows us the ugliness of the analytical position, and how the close reading habit serves only to break apart.
Certainly, there is always a sense of awe, even of jealousy, mixed into our curiosity about cats – perhaps it is the same for ‘close readers’. At the back of our love for poems, our willingness to abase ourselves before their sometimes awful behaviour, is our belief that they know things that we do not, and the hope that at some point we may know it too. People who dislike cats resent this, and it may account for their dismissive remarks about it being ‘just’ a cat. The first step in loving a cat in the manner proper to them, is the same as loving poetry: it is the acknowledgment that you will never fully know its meaning, and are content to marvel at its design rather than fracture it.
Here is what we must guard against saying before people who have set up ‘critical thinking’ as their little godlet: most analysis is ugly, profane, and foolish. Be as the poet is to Miss Mischa; stand at a respectful distance and imagine the god bending down. Don’t seek to put yourself between the fur and the divine fingertip, and certainly don’t ask which god he is or how you spell his name. The cat within the poem within the cat – it is an infinite regression within which you are not wanted, because ‘nature and the sacred mysteries do not wish to be spoken of openly and plainly.’