Pay Attention: What Makes a Good Poem

Have you ever felt so totally alive and present in that one particular moment that you realized how rare a feeling it was?

According to Donald Revell in his book The Art of Attention, this moment comes to us through paying “attention.” He says that “Attention is a question of entirety, of being wholly present.”

On noting how a good poem can cause the reader to feel concern for an injured bird, though the poem was written years before (and the bird, if it existed, has long since died), Revell says, “it’s wonderful to be drawn to attend what I am reading so entirely that even the most ephemeral presents are Present to me and matters of concern.”

As I read Revell’s thoughts, I knew what he meant about poems that are so attentive that they make me attentive as a reader.

Here is an example of a poem (part of a longer poem, really), which was written between 1759 and 1763, and shows such attention to a pet cat that I sense Jeoffry the cat is still alive today.  And he is, in my own four cats. I do watch them attentively :).

Jubilate Agno, Fragment B, [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]

by Christopher Smart

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.

For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him.

For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.

For is this done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.

For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer.

For he rolls upon prank to work it in.

For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.

For this he performs in ten degrees.

For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.

For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.

For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.

For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.

For fifthly he washes himself.

For sixthly he rolls upon wash.

For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not be interrupted upon the beat.

For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.

For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.

For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

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.

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.

For if he meets another cat he will kiss her in kindness.

###

Source of the poem

23 Comments

Filed under Essay, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

23 responses to “Pay Attention: What Makes a Good Poem

  1. jeannieunbottled

    I know this poem well. Benjamin Britten set it to music in a cantata,
    “Rejoice in the Lamb.” I was in the chorus so did not sing these particular words, but I heard them a lot. The mouse solo is great too.

  2. Sadly, many people float through life never really paying attention. Thanks for sharing the poem, Luanne ~ loved it!

  3. Guess where I can go to get connected at the library to your blog? I can go to emails! Then, when you press like that gives me a few of your posts. But on my wordpress, by your gravatar it has only an email. I figured this out, Luanne! I am so happy! Anyway, I like the way you show us how to be attentive and notice the realness, the way the author makes the words about something come “alive!” I think it is important to know how to write this in a unique way. It is a challenge and I work on this a lot! Thanks for a great post to remind us of these qualities in writing!

    • Luanne

      Haha, Robin, I’m so glad you figured out a way! Thank you so much. I love reading your posts and knowing what’s going on in your world and mind :).

      • The cat poetry can be quite interesting in that it can be applied to any kind of writing. Making it have character and wit is a challenge! I like the idea a cat “can swim for life.” That makes me think we all need to make our writing about life and make it mean something life-changing, whenever we can! (Cats don’t like water, but they will swim for life! How profound!)

  4. Beautiful post, it made me stop and consider how much time I spend sometimes in worry, looking to schedules, being lost in daily duties lately. I don’t want those moments of feeling “so totally alive and present” to become rare! We all need a reminder sometimes.

    • Luanne

      I wrote it to remind myself as much as anybody. I would like a tap on the head as a reminder every morning! Thanks for responding, sunabsy!

  5. and cat’s still do it the same old way, we could learn an awful lot from cats, pity we learned nothing from the plight of the bees, the rearing of children, there is lots to learn and time is not on our side…

    • Luanne

      Ah, so true. It’s worrisome. The best we can do is to DO our best at all times. And to be courageous when it’s time to speak as you just did.

  6. I’d never heard of cat Jeoffrey, so thank you for sharing the poem. Theresa

  7. I don’t have cats and truly don’t have experience with them, only enough to know that they are deliberate creatures. It’s nice to find in someone’s words what you experience in your own life. It is what bonds us together. I’m glad you found this in Smart’s poem.

    • Luanne

      Thanks so much for noticing my connection with the Smart poem. I am around my four cats so much that all these little details of observation clicked with me automatically.

  8. I certainly agree that paying attention is the BEST tool in the poetry box. I am sure all the cat lovers out there loved the poem, though I don’t think it may be the best example of paying attention. I liked the poem too, but not necessarily as an example. On the other hand, the poem is rife with detail, so maybe I’m all wet here! LOL

    • Luanne

      No, I wouldn’t claim it as the best example, if there could be a best example, but it’s one that is meaningful to me. It also reminds me that all the time I spend observing my cats isn’t a waste of that time ;).

  9. So important! Sort of the basis for all art, focusing on the moment. Great post~

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