A clue to Eliot’s intention is found in his choice of title: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. “Old Possum” was the contemporary American poet Ezra Pound’s nickname for Eliot. The sobriquet refers to what Pound perceived to be Eliot’s ability to play at being what he was not, as the possum plays dead to thwart the plans of potential predators. Eliot’s forte in much of his so-called serious poetry is the allusional hint that is as likely to lead readers into a blind alley as into some revelatory meaning. Thus, that he would choose to allude to Pound’s identification of him as a trickster in the title of a volume of poetry that appears to be children’s verse bordering somewhere among the whimsical, the satirical, and the nonsensical is encouragement enough to warrant reading the poetry with a mildly jaundiced eye.
To start with what the poetry of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is very likely not, the poems are not animal fables in the same way as Aesop’s stories or George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1949); that is to say, Eliot maintains the authentic tone of someone who is mainly having fun with the words, images, and characterizations. This essential quality of a poetic divertimento is found both in the sonority and wit of the language and in the sing-song rhythms of the verses themselves, and so cannot easily be dismissed.
It would be as wrongheaded, however, to assume that there...
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