Feat. Poetry Collection: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats

National Poetry Month continues today, as we continue this week’s focus on T.S. Eliot.

For today’s featured poetry collection, I’m turning to Eliot’s collection of light verse: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

Chances are, you’ve probably already heard most (if not all) of the poems from this collection in the guise of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. That’s how I became infatuated with the poems — after becoming obsessed with the musical soundtrack around the age of three. Ever since, I’ve had a soft spot for these whimsical poems. (I even named my childhood cat Jennyanydots after the poem The Old Gumbie Cat.)

The poems in the book are:

  • The Naming of Cats
  • The Old Gumbie Cat
  • Growltiger’s Last Stand
  • The Rum Tum Tugger
  • The Song of the Jellicles
  • Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer
  • Old Deuteronomy
  • The Pekes and the Pollicles
  • Mr. Mistoffolees
  • Macavity: the Mystery Cat
  • Gus: the Theatre Cat
  • Bustopher Jones: the Cat about Town
  • Skimbleshanks: the Railway Cat
  • The Ad-dressing of Cats
  • Cat Morgan Introduces Himself

Eliot originally wrote the poems in letters to his godchildren in the 1930s, under the name “Old Possum” — a nickname given to him by poet Ezra Pound. They were later collected and published in 1939, and again in 1940 with illustrations by Nicolas Bentley. (It’s since been published with new illustrations by other artists, as well.)

Here’s a sampling from one of my favorite poems, Skimbleshanks: the Railway Cat:

There’s a whisper down the line at 11.39
When the Night Mail’s ready to depart,
Saying, ‘Skimble where is Skimble has he gone to hunt the thimble?
We must find him or the train can’t start.’
All the guards and all the porters and the stationmaster’s daughters
They are searching high and low,
Saying ‘Skimble where is Skimble for unless he’s very nimble
Then the Night Mail just can’t go.’
At 11.42 then the signal’s overdue
And the passengers are frantic to a man —
Then Skimble will appear and he’ll saunter to the rear:
He’s been busy in the luggage van!

As I mentioned earlier, Webber drew on the poems from this collection for his musical Cats. But he also drew on additonal characters from Eliot’s unpublished drafts — the most notable among them Grizabella. In Webber’s adaptation, her song “Memory” is still one of the most well-known and beloved songs in musical theater. (And I confess, even I’ve got a soft spot for that song. It still gives me chills).

For a closer look at how Eliot’s poems were adapted for the musical theater, here are some of my favorite songs/scenes from Cats (including the in/famous “Memory” reprise.)

Mr. Mistoffelees:


Memory (Reprise):

For the comments: What is your favorite poem from The Book of Practical Cats, or what is your favorite song from the musical Cats?

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