Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Are you a dog writer or a cat writer?

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 Tome 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.

Little Girl Fond Matches So ‘to recall’ means ‘to recollect’ which means ‘to remember’ which means ‘to recall’. It’s a wonder any of us learned English in the first place.

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 Scottie 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

voltaire-and-roussau-boris 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):

Sometimes the
        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

greyfriars-bobby-edin 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;
(from ‘Stray’)

He's a junkie, returning to vomit
        like a dog, or a moth to light.
(from ‘Chains’)

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.

Bagpuss 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.
(from ‘Unbeliever’)

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 dEdward Lear and his cat Foss 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 Travelswithcharley2 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.”


Anonymous said...

oh my - what a great posting Jim. Every thought of yours a treat. I knew I'd written a cat poem - just about a month ago - and there was a dog in 'the half-life of linoleum' that stole a police car.

I did a quick search through all of my writing (ex the novel) and found that I'd written about dogma many more times than I'd written about dogs. So it goes.

My mom had a couple dogs, sandy and midge and a couple of cats tiger and louie. my mom actually has no use for pets so it's so bizarre to me that she had them at all. they were companions she could grouse about i suppose after my brother and i moved out I suppose, something to keep the veterinarians employed.

my son had a goldfish named charlie one day. actually one day and part of a night. I'm not into pets either but I have work to grouse about.

Fable is a great poem, I like how you used that line 'just not in that way' for a whole new meaning. But of course, I don't really know what you meant, I only know what I think you meant, and I think you meant something different from what that line really means. Unless you meant what it means, in which case, it's not about what i think.

When I searched through my archives I found this, the only poem i've written about a dog:

when we're walking
the dog,

when we're going around
the world,

you let me out on a
string, you pull me
back in.

-it's not even really about a dog, is it? it's about a yo yo. i wrote it for a dear, dear, dear love of mine. she had a dog, we loved to travel, i was the yo-yo. she didn't really pull me back in. that part was made up.


Scattercat said...


Gwil W said...

Congartulations onbeing featured as a 'Blogger of Note'

People have dogs.
Cats have people.

Last week I composed a fox poem. Dog?

I like cats for their mysterious inscrutability and their dogged independence. Cat?

I'm really mixed-up. Doat?

Jim Murdoch said...

‘Fable’ is a work poem, Koe. It is about the day my boss sacked the cleaner. The cleaner was lovely. She used to give me a hug every time she arrived and left and always had time for a chat although to be fair she talked more about herself and her problems but I never minded. The strange thing is that he actually did her a favour because it enabled her to get into social work for which she had both a passion and a talent. At the time it made me very angry – there really was no reason to let her go – and I pined for weeks. The thing was she had known my boss since they were at school together and I don’t think she ever quite showed him the respect he believed he was due.

Scattercat, yes, well, what else would I have expected from someone with a name like yours?

And, Gwilym, I have followed Garfield for years. I have many books and a house full of soft toys in fact there’s a 2’ tall Garfield sitting in the chair next to me as I write this. I’ve always thought that Davis really has the characteristics of cats and dogs nailed down in Garfield and Odie. Snoopy never quite rang true for me. I prefer the kids in Peanuts.

Unknown said...

Interesting and fun post. Both by your descriptions of dog vs cat people, and the fact that I have a furball havanese on my lap as I type this, am totally a dog person.

Agree on Garfield vs Snoopy, though, as love Garfield and thinks it rings true, and Snoopy not so much. He is a petulant child rather than a dog.


Anonymous said...

Jim - fable is a wonderful metaphorical work then. . . it wasn't at all about what i thought it was about. . . a bird, a fish and a pond. i've been learning just how concrete a thinker i am when it comes to reading - probably writing too. it's likely in my genes as my dad worked for a company that mixed and delivered concrete.

Have you written the sequel yet? The social work happy ending for the fish?

Scattercat said...

I've always been amused that cats are such a polarizing animal. It's not like there's good points that the people who love them like and bad points the people who dislike them can't get over; the same traits tend to be cited as both the reason to love or hate. (Though they either call it "standoffishness" or "independence," depending on their preference.)

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for dropping by, Brahm. Mind you I’ve seen Garfield do petulant too on occasion but he’s nothing like Snoopy and Odie is absolutely nothing like Snoopy.

There’s nothing wrong with being a concrete thinker, Koe, and I think that’s where much of your own style comes from, a literal interpretation of life. But that’s why characters like Mork and Data were so loveable, because of how they viewed things. Perhaps that were Jilly gets it from.

And, Scattercat, true but I think that’s true about most things: one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Dick said...

Another glorious excursion, Jim, with a couple of your best poems snuggled down inside it all.

For the record, I am emphatically a cat person. For me, dogs are all guilty until proven innocent. An addition to your list - Proverbs 26:11: 'As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly'.

Jim Murdoch said...

Of course, Dick, cats will also eat their own vomit. Gives me the dry boak just thinking about it.

Brent Robison said...

As both a writer and reader, I'm in the cat family. Dogs are all on the surface, no subtlety. All about serving the master. Fun, but a little unsatisfactory for me. Cats are all mystery, unplumbed depths, taking the world on their own terms... more my style. Or at least I'd like to think so.

Art Durkee said...

Cats and Dogs

Rachel Fenton said...

Give me a cat who bahaves like a dog and he's mine!

I think Toni Morrison coined the word "rememory" when commenting about her book "Beloved" - and it is a brilliant use of language.

Your post was fun and I enjoyed your poetry very much. I think you could write a cool collection of fables.

I'd rather have a hen than a dog or a cat - they lay eggs, don't puke, don't leave dead animals or guts on your doorstep and you don't have to follow them round with a carrier bag picking up shit...though if I could get a dog that laid eggs I'd be interested..

Kass said...

I once read that if you removed 95% of a cat's brain, it would behave exactly the same as before the operation. It makes you wonder where instincts reside?

I enjoyed your description, poems and musings here.

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Brent, dogs will wag their tails at anyone – they’re just desperate for attention – whereas cats will size you up before condescending to approach which I like. Earned love is deserved love. I’m not sure I trust unconditional affection.

I’ve not seen Cats and Dogs, Art, although, to be honest, it is my kind of film. I’ve always enjoyed pictures with pets who could talk back from A Boy and his Dog on. I even enjoyed Look Who’s Talking Now.

Plus, Rachel, you could always eat the hen if it got too annoying. I keep threatening to microwave our cockatiel but he knows I’m full of hot air.

And, Kass, you could probably do that with our brains too.

Ken Armstrong said...

I'm a Dog Person. I have no compunction in saying this. Em... tome!

Good stuff.

Jim Murdoch said...

Just please don't write a song about it, Ken.

Lazarus said...

Great post,both informative and funny! I latched onto you via "Blogs of Note," what a great find. Keep up the terrific writing!

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you found me, Lazarus. Hope you keep on reading.

Loren Eaton said...

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.

Goodness, I do this all the time.

Jim Murdoch said...

The thing is, Loren, every now and then I'll read something that I've written and got right and I wonder where the hell my head was the day I wrote it and what do I need to do to get back there. I just posted an extract of a novel at a comment, just two or three sentences and they are so good that I simply cannot imagine being able to write them again.

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