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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

I love Smart’s idiosyncratic fragments in the Jubilate for being so strange, contradictory, dialectical, direct, and open-hearted.

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]
by Christopher Smart (1722-1771)
For having considered God and himself he will consider his neighbor.
For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.
For when he takes his prey he plays with it to give it a chance.
For one mouse in seven escapes by his dallying.
For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins.
For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary.
For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes.
For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life.
For in his morning orisons he loves the sun and the sun loves him.
For he is of the tribe of Tiger.
For the Cherub Cat is a term of the Angel Tiger.
For he has the subtlety and hissing of a serpent, which in goodness he suppresses.
For he will not do destruction if he is well-fed, neither will he spit without provocation.
For he purrs in thankfulness when God tells him he's a good Cat.
For he is an instrument for the children to learn benevolence upon.
For every house is incomplete without him, and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.
For the Lord commanded Moses concerning the cats at the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt.
For every family had one cat at least in the bag.
For the English Cats are the best in Europe.
For he is the cleanest in the use of his forepaws of any quadruped.
For the dexterity of his defense is an instance of the love of God to him exceedingly.
For he is the quickest to his mark of any creature.
For he is tenacious of his point.
For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery.
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest.
For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.
For he is of the Lord's poor, and so indeed is he called by benevolence perpetually--Poor Jeoffry!
poor Jeoffry! the rat has bit thy throat.
For I bless the name of the Lord Jesus that Jeoffry is better.
For the divine spirit comes about his body to sustain it in complete cat.
For his tongue is exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in music.
For he is docile and can learn certain things.
For he can sit up with gravity, which is patience upon approbation.
For he can fetch and carry, which is patience in employment.
For he can jump over a stick, which is patience upon proof positive.
For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command.
For he can jump from an eminence into his master's bosom.
For he can catch the cork and toss it again.
For he is hated by the hypocrite and miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge.
For he camels his back to bear the first notion of business.
For he is good to think on, if a man would express himself neatly.
For he made a great figure in Egypt for his signal services.
For he killed the Icneumon rat, very pernicious by land.
For his ears are so acute that they sting again.
For from this proceeds the passing quickness of his attention.
For by stroking of him I have found out electricity.
For I perceived God's light about him both wax and fire.
For the electrical fire is the spiritual substance which God sends from heaven to sustain the
bodies both of man and beast.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
For, though he cannot fly, he is an excellent clamberer.
For his motions upon the face of the earth are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.

* Adrian Blevins Comments:
Christopher Smart's lines about his cat Jeoffry are the most famous of Jubilate Agno, but despite being an incomplete series of fragments some critics have called "a kind of diary," the whole book is worth reading and marveling over for what we might call its contagious energy of mind.  There is even an openness and expansiveness of thought in the poem that seems quite contemporary—think Whitman, Ginsberg, C.K. Williams, McGrath, Goldbarth, Perillo, Hamby, and Kirby.  In fact, when Smart tells us that "the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour," "Three is the simplest and best of all numbers," and that "rain is exceedingly good for the human body," it is possible to think of him as yet another ill-treated visionary poet.  The story is that he was poor, in debt, and insane—a religious maniac—and so thrown into an asylum with his cat.  But when Smart tells us in one of the sections of the Jubilate that "they work me with their harping-irons, which is a barbarous instrument, because I am more unguarded than others" and that he has "a greater compass both of mirth and melancholy than another," you wonder if he didn’t just need more empathy, Paxil, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Smart's fragments of praise—all those wonderfully authoritative, end-stopped, sentence-lines cataloguing the world's confusing and contradictory bounty in such emphatic, incantatory terms—are often hilarious and moving.  His anaphora-driven rhetoric frames his moves from thing to thing—volcanoes, burning mountains, the English language, harpsichords, death, the devil, Jesus, flowers, silly fellows, something called a "moon fish," and frost, for just a very short list—quite handily.  Smart’s catalogues are also far from being boring or obvious.  Some of the lines even anticipate our current poetry’s habits of self-conscious self-reference and are even somewhat syntactically indeterminate:
            For the trumpet rhimes are sound bound, soar more and the like.
            For the harp rhimes are sing ring, string & the like.
            For the dulcimer rhimes are grace place beat heat & the like.
In his Introduction to Christopher Smart's Selected Poems, Marcus Walsh quotes Donald Davie as saying, "it is not impossible that when Smart is judged over the whole range of his various production…he will be thought of as the greatest English poet between Pope and Wordsworth."  While Walsh dismisses Jubilate Agno in favor of the more complete and traditional "Song of David," I love Smart’s idiosyncratic fragments in the Jubilate for being so strange, contradictory, dialectical, direct, and open-hearted.  I share Carl Dennis's preference in Poetry as Persuasion for speaker-driven poems, and in Smart I get a speaker whose mind I can take pleasure in and trust.  "For the pleasantry of a cat at pranks is in the language ten thousand times over," he tells us, and if by this he means that language is sneaky and clever and elusive and brisk and bouncy and nippy and instant and swift, I can’t help but wholeheartedly agree.
 About Adrian Blevins:
Adrian Blevins's full-length poetry collections are The Brass Girl Brouhaha (Ausable Press, 2003), a winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and Live from the Homesick Jamboree (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). Her other honors include a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award and a Bright Hill Press Poetry Chapbook Award for The Man Who Went Out for Cigarettes (1996). Blevins directs the creative writing program at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.

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