Cats, poetry, and left-wing polemic: a sort of reply to Keith
One can reasonably expect a man with a name like Keith the Crowbar to have a fair idea of what is 'fluffy' and sentimental and what is not. I must, then, defer to Keith's verdict on Kendrick Smithyman's poem 'Sheffield'. After I blogged about Smithyman's text, which dwells on the effects a nuclear attack would have on the cats of the unfashionable northern English city, Keith left the following comment:
It is pretty offensive that he worries about cats but not about the PEOPLE of Sheffield. I also think that writers who dwell on cats and other fluffy things are sentimentalists. So sorry, but this poem fails my test. In fact I think it is very bad.
If Keith was disgusted at Smithyman's decision to make cats subjects of his poem, what might he think about EP Thompson, who let a cat share the back cover of one of his books, and cited the creature inside? At one point in 'The Poverty of Theory', his two hundred page polemic against the 'Stalinism in theory' of Louis Althusser, Thompson claimed that his cat knew more about ideology than his bete noire at the Sorbonne. Given that Althusser was widely considered, in the 1970s, to be the world's leading Marxist philosopher, Thompson's claims for his cat's knowledge may have seemed rather bold.
As if to support his appeal to his cat's authority, Thompson posed with the creature for the photo which graced the back cover of The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays when the book was published for the first time in 1978. The photo might have looked like a bit of fun to most readers, but it did not escape the stringent eye of Terry Eagleton, the young English lit scholar who was, in the late '70s, one of Althusser's leading British disciples. In the long and critical review he wrote of The Poverty of Theory for the short-lived left-wing journal Literature and History, Eagleton gave pride of place to an analysis of the portrait of Thompson and cat.
More than three decades later, Eagleton still seems exercised by the back cover of The Poverty of Theory. In The Task of the Critic, a book-length interview with Matthew Beaumont published recently by Verso, the reformed Althusserian remembers his review, and the peculiar communication that it prompted from Thompson:
I [encountered] him at a political meeting at All Souls, of all places, when he came to give a lecture on Marx at roughly the time The Poverty of Theory appeared. On that occasion his polemic against Althusser turned into a polemic against Eagleton. He had a vastly appreciative audience. I stood up and asked Thompson a question - I can't even remember what I asked him - and in the course of his response he used the phrase 'We must oppose Terry Eagleton!'
I then reviewed The Poverty of Theory fairly negatively...I made a reference in the review to the photograph on the book's cover, which was of Thompson with a cat on his shoulder. I wrote about the semiotics of the photograph. He's buried his head in his hands, there's a great shock of grey hair, and this small cat is looking out at the camera on his behalf. To my surprise he sent me a postcard that said 'My cat is not small: look at the other shoulder.' And sure enough the cat's behind can be seen perkily protuding from the other shoulder. This was the last, highly intellectual exchange we ever had.
I sent this passage from The Task of the Critic to Thompson's widow Dorothy, who is a distinguished historian and a very capable polemicist in her own right. Dorothy sent me her own explanation of the back cover of that first edition of The Poverty of Theory:
Edward was very attached to his cats and taught them a trick which he learnt from me and my brothers. We would let our cats sit on our shoulders and reach their paws down and snatch the food from our fork as it went to our mouths. A disgusting habit but very funny and we mainly kept cats for laughs. The picture on the back of the Poverty of Theory was one I took of Edward with his large furry cat across his shoulder. Terry interpreted it as a piece of post-modern symbolism.
Dorothy also sent me a scan of the dedication on the title page of her copy of The Poverty of Theory. Is the whiskered face beside Edward's name perhaps evidence of the co-authorship of the book?
Just to add to Keith's annoyance, I wanted to post a text which is going, along with 'Sheffield', into the selection of Kendrick Smithyman's previously-unpublished poems Titus Books will be publishing in November. 'Knocking at the Family Tree' was written on the 21st of March, 1973:
Drunk again by noon, come Sunday
(on Hawkes Bay white wine which for once
in anticipation I chilled) I move to ask,
could anybody conceivably want me
to redeem them? Just,
help them a little?
I am in love
with a poplar which, as a cutting,
was given me, to be heeled in
to provide cuttings. Those, transplanted
would (they do) stand along the bank of our contentious
creek. These umpteen years the tree grew
too small. It sends out roots, which manifest
themselves where my wife wants to grow roses.
They trespass under the bed
of dahlias. Rumour raises them
on the far side of the house. Insidious -
that's a good word, kids -
they are insidious.
Each man kills the thing he loves.
That's Oscar (you know) doing it hard
rhetorically, cricket cap and all and all,
invidiously. I am not queer, if not like Oscar.
I fall for trees. This poplar now,
which has its moods, has its ways
especially with breezes from the right
sector, and with moonlight.
But it's a bloody nuisance.
Expensive, to have a surgeon wing it low.
So I begin to do it myself. With a saw
borrowed seven or more years back
from Maurice, who gave me the cutting
in the final place. Lop the lower
branches, at the outset. I recite
deaths of friends: of Susy,
silver-grey-blonde miniature Sydney Sily
whose father was an eccentric behaviourist
dropped heart-struck in Ontario, loving
Henry Vaughan and hermetic doctrine. Of
Mister Music, who had to be put down
because of kidney stones. The elegant
coat-of-many-colours, Miss Friday,
her son Tum Tertius Tyger, both killed
by cars beyond the trees' range.
Nice to think that there could be
another kingdom far, far beyond the stars.
Eternity is not a ring of light
only a tree, a sectional nuisance
not good for much but cats' climbing.
'Knocking at the Family Tree' might confuse as well as annoy Keith, because it manages to be at once fluffily sentimental and agonisingly honest. The poem certainly confused as well as thrilled me, when I discovered it deep in Smithyman's archive.
Smithyman was both a gregarious and a private man. Although he loved to talk and write, he was a ranconteur rather than a conversationalist, and a poet who preferred inventing personae to confessing secrets. The frankness of 'Knocking at the Family Tree' is, then, exceptional in Smithyman's oeuvre. In the poem's very first lines, Smithyman makes a very rare acknowledgement of his drinking habit. As Ian Richards shows in great detail in his excellent biography of Maurice Duggan, the postwar Kiwi literary scene was fuelled by large amounts of alcohol. Smithyman may have drunk a little less than legendary boozers like Duggan and the young James K Baxter, but he was hardly a teetotaller. In a 2003 interview with Jack Ross, Kendrick's widow Margaret Edgcumbe remembered how her husband could, even in his last years, drink 'cardboard chateau' all day, without showing any obvious ill effects.
The rare confession of heavy drinking in 'Knocking at the Family Tree' may have something to do with the desperate situation of one of Smithyman's best friends in March 1973. A little less than a month before 'Knocking' was written, a judge committed Maurice Duggan to the care of mental health professionals at a closed session of a Takapuna court. Duggan's drinking had been escalating for years, and by the end of 1972 had gotten completely out of control. Richards describes one typical incident from the months before the writer's commital:
Duggan had been driving home in an utterly drunken state. After leaving the motorway and managing to cross the wide intersection, he had driven onto and off the curb several times, then run completely off the road. Fortunately he still had the capacity to negotiate his way along the footpath between fences and lamp-posts. He destroyed several letterboxes before at last coming to a halt. [His wife] Barbara [and son] Nick got hurriedly into Barbara's car. They found the cortina near the intersection, with Duggan lying across the passenger seat asleep. Carefully they lifted him out and into the other car. Barbara scribbled notes to place in the smashed letterboxes, apologising for a failure of brakes and promising to pay for the damage...
Duggan was taken to Oakley Mental Hospital, whose fortified yet dilapidated red brick buildings had been part of the backdrop to Smithyman's childhood in Point Chevalier. It would hardly be surprising if Duggan's fate prompted Smithyman to worry about his own drinking, and his own state of mind.
'Knocking' starts with Smithyman drunk in the middle of the day, and goes on to lift the lid on other aspects of his troubled life in the early '70s. The messy state of the back yard of Smithyman's house at Nile Rd on Auckland's North Shore becomes a metaphor for the state of his marriage to his fellow poet Mary Stanley, who by 1973 had been suffering from debilitating arthritis and a mentally debilitating writer's block for more than a decade and a half. The back of the section on Nile Rd was marked by a series of sizeable poplars, and the roots of one of them were an obstacle to frustrating Mary's desire to grow roses. Smithyman revered poplars: the species features in a number of his poems, and there are many photos of the row of specimens at Nile Rd preserved amongst his papers.
Poplars may have fascinated Smithyman partly because of the varied cultural associations they enjoy in New Zealand. Because of their height and grace, they make regular appearances in the canon of English nature poetry that Smithyman, along with other Pakeha writers of his generation, imbibed as a young man, but they have also been assimilated into Maori culture in various ways. In the 1870s, for instance, Te Kooti, a man who was one of Smithyman's great preoccupations, decided that Christ's cross had been made from a felled poplar, and declared the tree sacred. In his journeys around the North Island the prophet planted poplars, which were carefully nurtured by members of his Ringatu church. Some of the trees Te Kooti planted still stand today.
Cutting into one of his beloved poplars with a saw he has borrowed from Duggan,who is hardly likely to need the tool for some time, Smithyman bathetically recalls the phrase 'each man kills the thing he loves', which Oscar Wilde used in his 'Ballad of Reading Gaol', a poem inspired by the case of a man condemned to death for cutting his wife's throat. Smithyman then remembers, in a passage which manages to be at once mawkish and moving, the lives and deaths of a succession of his household cats, from 'Susy' to 'Sydney Sily' to the marvellously-named 'Tum Tertius Tyger'. 'Knocking at the Family Tree' was not the first poem Smithyman had written about the high mortality rate that his pets suffered: during his six month sojourn in Yorkshire in 1969, he had found the time to lament the loss of Miss Friday in distant Auckland:
On an instant I’m seized by grief,
grief for some least of things –
dainty Friday, black and white mother cat,
a lightweight cat of three kittens,
neurotic, but very feminine.
She ran, playing, in front of a car.
Words do not work, will not speak.
Because Smithyman preserved labelled photos of his pets, we know that Miss Friday was a fluffy black and white moggie, and that Mister Music was a large, dark, short-haired creature. By 1973 Smithyman's affections seem to have been taken claimed by the Siamese cat which features in a long series of archived photos, including the one reproduced at the top of this post. Writing to the Scottish literary scholar Tom Crawford on the second day of 1974, Smithyman confessed that:
[L]etters don't come easy these days. Many of those which I begin, I rip up. They grow too dismal too soon...Tonight may be more felicitous/auspicious, a still night with a moon...and the cat, my so dear Siamese fellow who's been going in and out, who is now in, snuggled over my left arm and part of this paper, who's been my main hold on sanity and stability these past two years...
How do we read a poem like 'Knocking at the Family Tree', which seems, on the surface at least, to want to elevate the felling of a poplar and the death of cats to a greater level of significance than the sufferings of humans like Mary Stanley and Maurice Duggan? By making references to Smithyman's tragic marriage, his heavy drinking, and (obliquely) his friend Duggan's fate, and then sliding into a lamentation for a tree and for a series of fluffy creatures with silly names, Smithyman seems almost to invite our unease, and our criticism. Keith the Crowbar would certainly not be amused by the poet's decision to dwell on the fates of Tum Tertius Tyger and Mister Music, rather than those of Mary Stanley and Maurice Duggan.
Keith will no doubt disagree at the top of his voice, but I think it might be argued that the pathos that complements the fluffiness of characters like Miss Friday and Mister Music offers us a perspective on some of the more absurd features of human existence. Some critics have condemned Thomas Pynchon for using characters with comic book names and personalities in his books, claiming that such figures make a mockery of real human beings and their sufferings. At least some of Pynchon's defenders, though, have asserted that the silly names and clueless behaviour of many of the characters of novels like Against the Day and V is supposed to make us pity rather than scorn them, and also to make us consider whether our lives might not, when viewed from an appropriate distance and perspective, appear equally misdirected and thwarted.
Perhaps the absurdly-named, ill-fated creatures which dominate 'Knocking at the Family Tree' have more in common with the humans who share their environment than we would like to admit. Are we humans not all, whatever our titles and pretensions, ridiculous creatures like Miss Friday and Tum Tertius Tyger, rushing about, pursuing our small appetites and enthusiasms within the small ambits of our lives, and attracting the amused affection, at best, of those who dare to observe us with some objectivity? And do we not meet our ends with the same innocence and inevitability as poor Miss Friday?
After several stays in Oakley and much struggle, Maurice Duggan finally beat the bottle, returned to his North Shore home, rebuilt his relationship with his family, and resumed writing. After a few months of hopeful happiness, though, he was diagnosed with a cancer that would prove incurable. Duggan spent most of 1974 housebound, and died at the end of the year. In his narrative of Duggan's last months, Ian Richards reveals that Smithyman, whose 'much-loved cat liked to be taken for walks', was a frequent visitor to the Duggan household. Perhaps Maurice, as well as his old friend, found some comfort in the company of the 'so dear Siamese fellow'.