The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Kittens” is a long poem written in free verse; its short lines are grouped into ten stanzas. It is an elegy, a poem written in grief or mourning. This poem is also a song, a lyric lament for Robert Peters’s son Richard, who died suddenly in childhood. It laments unfulfilled wishes and lost promise. The poem is generated by the boy’s wish to have kittens and his father’s wish that his son had lived to experience more of the world.

The poem begins with the kittens that finally did come to fulfill the child’s wish—after his death. They are filled with energy and life: “plump dark woolly cats/ with eyes like olives/tumbling/ on the floor . . ./ lapping up blue milk.” Only “death-day/ morning” and perhaps the milk’s tinge suggest an elegy. In addition, the stanza that follows, a finely paced account of the birth of the kittens, celebrates abundance and beginnings. The kittens, “fur wet like licorice,” “fell/ into a land of honey.” The description of the births, although precisely detailed, conveys the mystery of the event.

In stanzas 3 and 4, however, the poem moves with fortitude and resignation into the body of another mystery: death. The poet describes the breakfast conversation during which the boy expressed his wish for kittens. His last wish, however, was rejected that “wish-day/ death-day” by his father, who tried to explain about pets:

“they die.Their little toescurl up like leaves,their waxy eyes go shut,their tails hang limptheir whiskers...

(The entire section is 703 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“My poems to my son were meant to give the illusion that a five-year-old child could understand them” says Peters. His language in “Kittens” is therefore direct, his rhythm plain, and his diction simple. Although the poem is not really written for a five-year-old (the metaphors and allusions are grown-up, and some of the vocabulary is too hard), the poem nevertheless is simple. This surface plainness allows a clear-eyed rumination on the boy’s death, on life and death, which does not fall prey to gross sentimentality or overlush expressions of sorrow. The poet/speaker simply talks; on the surface, he shares what happened.

The poems in Songs for a Son grew out of an emotionally charged situation and thus are blessed with a sudden abundance of energy that peaks, seemingly paradoxically, and turns into musical celebration at precisely the moments of greatest sorrow and pain. A good example in “Kittens” is the indented final lines of the seventh stanza, which lead to the jumbling, joyful liveliness of the next stanza. The short lines help sustain this energetic movement; the poem moves quickly through thoughts and memories.

In “Kittens,” the stanzas vary in length. Their form is loose enough to accommodate the varying needs and depths of the scenes. The poem’s temporal movement from scene to scene (stanza to stanza) gives the poem a narrative shape. It has chronology and various settings, both of which are familiar components of storytelling. The narrative begins in the speaker’s present, moves back in time to the death-day, moves further back in time to the funerals of Snake and Mouse, comes back to the death-day, and finally returns the reader to the present and the new kittens. Thus the poem is a cycle that examines, celebrates, and reveres, by means of the child’s death, the basic cycle of birth, life, and death. The sections of the poem represent eras in the boy’s short life.

What lends the poem further unity is that, like a talisman, the wish, which is directly referred to in four stanzas and is implicitly there in the rest, becomes almost an entity, a being with its own life that must be protected. An abstraction somehow concretized, it becomes an energy source in the poem, especially when it is fulfilled by the birth of the kittens.