Before I begin today’s blog proper I’d just like to welcome all my visitors today from Words of Wisdom. So, welcome. Today I’m featured as a Blogger of Note. For anyone new to my blog what can I tell you? This is a literary blog. I post twice a week. On Mondays there’s generally a book review and on Thursdays an article on some literary topic. I’ve been blogging for just over three years and so there’s a fairly hefty back catalogue growing. You can find an itemised list of posts on my website here but if I was to recommend three to you I’d probably go with: Learning poetry by heart, Philip Larkin: some personal observations and Five . . . sorry, six . . . things to do when you have writers block and one thing not to do.
And now onto today’s post…
Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you. - Mary Bly
I’m a cat person. I know what I mean when I say that but what do you think I mean? Do I mean I like cats or that I’m like a cat? Or something between the two?
The bottom line is that I don't know what I'm talking about. You don't know what I'm talking about. You think you know and that helps you cope but the bare fact is that it’s impossible, or as close to impossible that it doesn't make any difference, for you to understand me. I don't understand myself. We use words and expressions all the time without having a full and clear understanding of the words we’re using.
When I'm writing like this I understand. I know what I'm trying to say. But then I read back over the words and realise that what I intended to say it not what I've actually said. It's as if something's wrong with my wiring. I think ‘dark’ but I type 'black' which is close enough for government work - you get the gist - but why write if you're going to get it wrong all the time?
If you can't change something or fix it then you have two choices as far as I'm concerned: lie down and die or work within your limitations. When I write 'great tome' I realise that the majority of readers will interpret that as 'big book'. Seriously I have no idea what a 'tome' is; I'd have to look it up. I probably have at some time and forgotten. And yet I used the word fairly regularly without compunction. The thing is when I write ‘great tome’ I’m thinking ‘big book’ so why don't I write 'big book'? Sometimes I do. I did just then. But writing would be colourless if we did that. And there’s another word, ‘compunction’ – I know that I can bung in ‘without compunction’ at the end of a sentence like that but when else would I use the word ‘compunction’? I’ve feeling very compunctive today? Or would that be compunctual? Have you never noticed that there are words that only ever get used in one place and nowhere else? And we use them because we’ve heard other people use them.
Is 'recall' the same as 'remember'? They're synonyms and I treat them as if they're interchangeable but is 'recollection' the same as 'remembrance'? Not quite. You can see the subtle difference in the noun where it's not so obvious in the verb. Also you can recall faulty goods and expect them to be returned but if you simply remember faulty goods they’ll stay where they are.
What I’m basically saying here is that we take language for granted. We don’t think enough about just what’s going on. I think a dictionary is an hysterical thing when you think about it. Every word is defined by using other words that are defined elsewhere in the book which are themselves defined elsewhere often using the word you’re trying to find the definition of:
v. re•mem•bered, re•mem•ber•ing, re•mem•bers
a. To recall to the mind with effort; think of again
b. To recall or become aware of suddenly or spontaneously
tr.v. re•called, re•call•ing, re•calls
3. To remember; recollect.
v. rec•ol•lect•ed, rec•ol•lect•ing, rec•ol•lects
To recall to mind.
To remember something; have a recollection.
In The Little Girl who was Too Fond of Matches the narrator uses the word ‘rememory’ as a noun which I think is wonderful. I find the word ‘remember’ interesting because we use it for putting thoughts into memory and for getting them back out again. That’s because the prefix re- doesn’t just mean ‘again’:
1. Again; anew: rebuild.
2. Backward; back: react.
3. Used as an intensive: refine.
Understanding words is not merely an intellectual exercise. Language is something we experience. Our vocabularies grow rapidly over the first few years but once we’ve become adult they tend to level off quantitatively but I would suggest that qualitatively our appreciation of language grows until we die or until some ailment curtails the learning process, something like Alzheimer’s disease.
The more we interact with a word the deeper our understanding of it. To someone who has spent a lifetime breeding and training dogs the word ‘dog’ will have a much deeper meaning than it will have to someone like me who has never owned one and spent little time around one, although I’ll pretty much pet anything. Each of us carries around a personal dictionary.
The family at the end of our street had an Alsatian, a rather nasty creature, called Rex. When he died they went out and bought another one and called him Rex too. My friend Tom’s parents had two Golden Retrievers, one called Kim and the other, Glen. And those are the three dogs I’ve had the most experience of. My father had a Scottie called Butch but he died before I was born and he swore he’d never get another and when my dad swore never to do a thing he never did. ‘Boom Boom’, my downstairs neighbour, has a dog, an English Bulldog, who barks at everyone and anything; I’ve not petted him.
As I said though at the start of this essay I’m a cat person:
A team of researchers led by psychologist Sam Gosling at the University of Texas at Austin wanted to find out. They posted a questionnaire online as part of a larger study about personality called the Gosling-Potter Internet Personality Project.
About 4,500 participants answered questions that measured their personality inclinations in five areas: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. These five dimensions have been shown in previous research to encompass most personality traits. They also indicated whether they considered themselves cat people, dog people, both or neither.
It turns out that the "dog people" -- based on how people identified themselves, not on what animals they actually own -- tend to be more social and outgoing, whereas "cat people" tend to be more neurotic but "open," which means creative, philosophical, or nontraditional in this context.
Dog people scored significantly higher on extraversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness measures, and lower on neuroticism and openness than cat people, the survey found. The effect persisted regardless of gender of the respondent. – Elizabeth Landau, How are dog people and cat people different?, CNN, 13th Jan 2010
This doesn’t mean I’ve never written about dogs. In the past thirty-five years I’ve actually written eleven poems that reference dogginess in some way. Only four reference cats. None are about specific animals I’ve had any experience of apart from the cat in Voltaire & Rousseau’s bookshop on Otago Lane (off Otago Street):
owner nods to me but his
cat never stirs. I asked
him once if she was stuffed but the
guy never answered me.
(from ‘The Bookshop on Otago Street’)
and that’s just a cameo. (BTW the cat’s actually a tom called Boris.) Needless to say I’ve never said more than two words to the owner of that bookshop and I know for a fact the cat’s not stuffed because I’ve seen him wandering around the place. Of course anyone reading the poem will have to take the word ‘cat’ and imagine what kind of creature I’m talking about. Perhaps it’s the guy that’s stuffed.
In most of the other poems both ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ are metaphors, abstracts, like in this piece:
An Old Friend
The pangs of conscience came later
like an ancient dog,
blind and arthritic,
that he could not bear to destroy.
Though a good few paces behind him,
and forever late,
it always arrived,
knowing no one else would have him.
Even if the old man could find sleep,
when he opened his eyes
the dog would be there,
its pearly gaze transfixing him.
17 October 1986
I’ve read about faithful dogs, the Greyfriars Bobbies of this world, but I’ve never experienced that kind of devotion from an animal. My mother’s cats were certainly not like that. Actually the dog I had in my mind in the poem was Candy’s dog from Of Mice and Men:
The old man came slowly into the room. He had his broom in his hand. And at his heels there walked a dragfooted sheepdog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes. The dog struggled lamely to the side of the room and lay down, grunting softly to himself and licking his grizzled, moth-eaten coat.
Other references to dogs in my poems:
You can't always tell a
dog by the person
pulling its lead;
He's a junkie, returning to vomit
like a dog, or a moth to light.
Time is a dog which haunts you –
(from ‘Time Part II’)
Never again will I fret
like a sick dog at night.
(from ‘Homage (13.10.83)’)
like the sound of rain against a window
and the barking of dogs
or strange noises upstairs.
(from ‘Deserted Lives’)
Frankly there are as many sins as dogs
but not all dogs are Dachshunds or Great Danes.
(from ’57 Varieties’)
In all of these I’m referring to negative qualities and using dogs to underline my meaning. I’m sure a dog poet would have used very different metaphors and similes.
In the cat poems, one talks about a starving cat (a thing to be pitied), in another a cat knocks something over (in that cute way cats do), the third reference is to the cat curled up on the desk in the bookshop (shades of sleepy Bagpuss there) but it’s the last one that’s the most interesting:
Me? I sit
on the fence and
watch the traffic
go to and fro
day in, day out.
I suppose it's
the cat in me.
This is the only one where I say that I am like a cat as opposed to be someone who simply likes cats. Edgar Allan Poe had a pet cat, Catterina, when he lived in Philadelphia. The Brontë sisters were well-known as cat lovers. Raymond Chandler talked to his black Persian, Taki, as though she was human and called her his secretary because she sat on his manuscripts as he tried to revise them. Jean Cocteau dedicated Drôle de Ménage to his cat Karoun, whom he d escribed as "the king of cats." Hemingway shared his Key West home with more than thirty cats. Edward Lear was devoted to Foss, his tabby cat. When he decided to move to San Remo, Italy, he instructed his architect to design a replica of his old home in England so Foss would not be disturbed and suffer a minimum of distress after the move. George Sand (real name Amandine Dudevant) reportedly ate her breakfast from the same bowl as her cat Minou. H.G. Wells’ cat, Mr. Peter Wells, had the habit, if a guest talked too long or too loudly, of getting up from its chair, protesting loudly and stalking out of the room.
Elizabeth Barrett was an invalid and confined to the house for many years. During this time she acquired a love of poetry and wrote the famous dog poem simply called 'To Flush, My Dog'. (I would point out that ‘flush’ in this poem is a proper noun and not a verb.) John Steinbeck’s poodle was the namesake for his book Travels with Charley. Truman Capote had a bulldog called Maggie. Sir Walter Scott’s bloodhound, Nimrod, killed his cat, Hinse. Jules Verne’s dog was called Satellite. Samuel Beckett kept a Kerry bitch when he was a young man in Foxrock. He mentions the bitch at some length at least three times in his writings. When the Kerry bitch he grew up with was diagnosed with cancer and had to be destroyed at the age of 12, Beckett plunged into such deep gloom that he contemplated suicide. Luckily, instead he wrote Krapp's Last Tape. In The Last Will and Testament to an Extremely Distinguished Dog, written by Eugene O'Neill, the author paid tribute to his beloved Dalmatian, Blemie. Growing up James Thurber had an Airedale named "Muggs"; Thurber wrote a short story about him called "Muggs, the dog that bit people", a very funny story apparently.
The bottom line of all this is that it would seem that it’s in our genes. We’re instinctively cat people or dog people. I’ve never owned either and had our cockatiel not decided to land on our windowsill to try and escape from an attacking magpie I wouldn’t have a bird. The only pets I’ve bought have been fish and snails – the fish gets called ‘Fishy’ and the snails ‘Sluggies’ – so God alone knows what that says about me. Both have appeared in two poems, one each, and one shared:
There was once a bird, a fish and a pond.
"I love you," said the bird to the fish.
"I love you too," said the fish in the pond,
"but I can see no future in it."
True, thought the bird. "Grant me, please, one last thing:
a good bye peck – one kiss and I'll go."
"One kiss," she said. Just then the bird plucked her
from the pond and swallowed her whole.
"But you love me," she cried from inside him.
"I do," he smiled, "just not in that way."
That said, the bird sat for the longest time
till the ripples had all vanished
and the fish had become a memory.
Then he flew away.
Thursday, 24 July 2003
We began talking about memory and that’s where we’ve ended up. With a collection of memories that have all blurred together into what ‘a dog’ is and what ‘a cat’ is because the dogs in my poems are just that, dogs, some abstract notion of what comprises a dog. But I’m not drawing on my own personal interactions with dogs, I’m also drawing on how dogs have been represented in literature, art and in common culture. Where did the expression ‘sick as a dog’ come from? Cats can be sick. I’ve seen sick cats. I’ve seen cats be sick. And, although I’ve never witnessed it (or if I have then I’ve blocked it) they will also eat their own vomit. So why did I use a dog in my poem? Because I had a religious upbringing and was well aware of Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.”