Sunday, 23 September 2012

Stevie Smith – The Galloping Cat

The Galloping Cat is a prime example of Stevie Smith's eccentric, erratic style. Yet the underlying message is morbidly serious and frightening.
Stevie Smith believed that fine poetry should be genderless. We might ask how far her irreverence and her tendency to mock the most powerful cultural institutions is a product of her writing as a woman? Stevie Smith's cultural background was unsympathetic to women writing, and this, combined with her eccentricity, was an explosive combination. Yet, beneath her humorous treatment of tragic issues there are intimations that are dark, sinister and sometimes morbid. She is known for conveying serious themes in playful nursery rhyme structure, and for her sense of irony and creativity in using metre and a variety of voices.

An A-type Personality

Smith's The Galloping Cat is – must be – an example of an A-type personality, embodying today's modern label for an aggressive, workaholic individual. Like some of Stevie Smith's detractors, he is full of self-importance. The cat is driven and his project is relentless, for that is why he must always gallop. He is an inveterate do-gooder, and there is clearly much that must be done. "One day when I was / Galloping about doing good, I saw / A figure in the path; I said / Get off!..." Nothing must stand in the way of the cat, who is angry when the figure does not move, but instead lands him a cuff on his cheek. "So I made to dodge so as to / Prevent him from bringing it orf / Un-for-tune-ately I slid / On a banana skin." This banana reference is the kind of commonplace throwaway that may have irritated Smith's critics. She is, after all, irreverent of literary values.

Yet, through her eccentric literary style, Stevie Smith deals with important matters. The motivation behind the behaviour of Smith's amazing cat is is humorously exposed in the language it uses. Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, in his book, Pulling Your Own Strings, says of the A-typer personality: "They are impatient, constantly urging others (and themselves) to speed up and get on with it. They are likely to become unduly enraged at things like traffic jams."

Chopping Down the Untidy Flowers

The hyphens in the word "Un-for-tune-ately" could evoke the image of a sharp-talking salesman explaining away a bungled delivery. Towards the end of the poem, the cat is actually, "Chopping the untidy flowers down..." The cat sings out "Ha ha ha ha, ho," disparaging the "Angels" who do not realise what a full-time, practical, earthly job he does. Thus, the cat repels spirituality as he proceeds on his do-gooding, busy and insensitive gallop, destroying, in his great rush, anything aesthetic, emotional or spiritual, qualities of great consequence to the woman-poet.
This unseeing busy-ness is vital to the cat's sense of self-worth; it enhances his importance and it makes him angry to be pitied by the angels. "Sharpness, worth I dare say / (If you'll forgive the personal note) / A good deal more / than all that skyey stuff."

Stevie Smith is a poet with the unique distinction of having been portrayed in a film by the political-activist actor, Glenda Jackson. Glenda Jackson never met Stevie Smith, although she heard her read in public. The other central character in the film, Stevie Smith's much-loved Lion Aunt from Yorkshire, described her niece's work as "Stuff and nonsense!"


The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, Penguin, London, 1985
Stevie, (film) Embassy Home Entertainment, 1983
Pulling Your Own Strings, by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, Arrow Books Ltd., London, 1978

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