February 24 Workshop

Hi!  This is Susan Palwick, posting about our class this afternoon.  I had a great time, and I hope everyone else did, too!

Our model today was Christopher Smart’s delightful poem For I will Consider my Cat Jeoffry, an excerpt from a longer poem called Jubilate Agno. Smart wrote this poem sometime between 1756 and 1763, when he was in an insane asylum. His best friend was his cat, and he wrote the poem to celebrate and describe Jeoffry: his behavior, his appearance, the way sparks fly when a human touches his fur in dry weather. “For by stroking of him I have found out electricity,” Smart writes, and that and other lines made all of us laugh. Smart was writing during a very difficult time in his life, and he wrote almost 250 years ago, but reading the poem today, we still delight in how Jeoffry plays with a cork, kisses another cat he meets, and meticulously grooms himself. We can see Jeoffry, centuries later, through Smart’s loving description.

We read parts of the poem aloud — not all of it, because it’s long — and then made a list of things we observed about the poem: how each line begins with “for,” how Smart both personifies the cat and carefully observes his purely animal behavior, how the poem seems to be a journal kept over time. (For instance, Smart describes both how Jeoffry has been bitten by a rat and how he heals.)

We asked ourselves what subjects we might choose for such a poem. Children, family, friends, plants: “anything!“, as one student declared. So then we started writing our own poems.

Well, most of us did! I didn’t write right away: I was too busy playing with Trinity’s beautiful daughter, who’ll be one next week, and who was happily babbling, waving at anyone who’d look at her, and dropping paper on the floor to make the grown-ups pick it up.

The poems that came out of this exercise were incredibly moving: Trinity wrote about her daughter; Angela wrote about her son; Susan wrote about her sister; Susan’s daughter — I’m terrible at names, and I apologize! — wrote about a beloved stuffed toy. Some of the volunteers wrote, too: about music, a devoted spouse, even a camera.

We still had time when we were done sharing those drafts, so we decided that we’d all write Smart-style poems about the baby, as birthday gifts for her. This time I wrote, too. After we’d shared those efforts, we talked about how Trinity can continue her poem, adding to it on every holiday, or even every day, keeping it as a journal about her daughter the same way Smart kept a journal about Jeoffry. And, of course, any of us can start similar projects. (I hope Susan and her daughter will write about the new apartment they’re moving into next week, and I hope Angela will write about her new baby, who’s due next week too.)

Thank you, Christopher Smart, for showing us how to write about joy even in the middle of darkness. And thank you to everyone who participated!

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