This isn’t going to be long or deep, but hey, I read it, so why not?
After seeing the amazing Cats film over Christmas, we wandered into a secondhand bookshop in Manchester, where by serendipity was waiting for us a copy of the very poems that were responsible for what we had just seen! So we bought it. And then we watched the recording of the Cats stage show that was on Youtube for a weekend as a lockdown morale booster. So I finally read it!
They are pretty much just poems about cats! They’re quite silly superficially but make use of various clever rhyming schemes and rhythm patterns and clearly an affectionate familiarity with cats, and contain a lot of period detail – they were written to entertain Eliot’s nieces and are thus intended to be relatable, and yes, I do feel ridiculous talking like this about a book of cat poems.
The biggest surprise was I think just how much the Cats musical (and therefore film) is just literally a book of poems set to music and beautiful choreography. I especially wonder what it’s like to read the poems before having heard the songs, especially, because my inner voice kept on reverting to song as I read. And I think the music enhances the poems! Try to read The Rum Tum Tugger or The Old Gumbie Cat without the music. I mean… can you?
In a way it makes me admire Andrew Lloyd Webber more, imagining him reading these poems and thinking “Yes, I shall make the most successful musical in the world,” and… making that happen. I read an article about the film which posited that Eliot may have been happy with the batshittery of the film he’d inspired, and I hope that’s the case. (If you are interested in the history of Cats please watch this video, no I don’t care that it’s long, you have the time now.)
Coming fresh from the Tarzans the little mentions of “heathen Chinese” and foreign dogs/cats did raise those little red flags for me. I know it’s meant to be fun and a clever little riff on Pekingese dogs and Siamese cats but I’m not sure I can be like “oh, well, racism is OK as long as it’s fun racism for children based on the British Empire” so. Uh. Yeah.
Conclusion: The Naming of Cats is a top-tier poem and better than we all deserve.