A Twitter friend asked me the other day where my name came from. I wrote about the origin of “Thoughtcat” on the original website some years ago, but as with most other pages there, it’s a tad difficult to find now. So here’s the story…
One of my all-time favourite poems is Ted Hughes’s The Thought-Fox, which draws an analogy between a fox prowling for food through a forest and a writer sitting up at midnight on a similar hunt for thoughts, or a poem, in his head; the poem has been a part of my own head ever since I first read it as a teenager. A few years later I was browsing in the poetry section of a bookshop and came across An Unusual Cat Poem by Wendy Cope. Various other (feline) influences came to bear, including a few poems by Brian Patten, and an observation my late grandad once made: “They’re contrary buggers, aren’t they, cats? You feed ’em and look after ’em and give ’em a home, and then they turn round, give you a filthy look and bugger off.” Eventually all this coalesced into my own version of Ted Hughes’s poem (below): inspiration is contrary, it comes and goes; you have a moment of sublime profundity when you can write absolutely anything – and the next moment you’re back, as Leonard Cohen once put it, crawling across the carpet in your underwear searching for a rhyme for “orange”. Russell Hoban has called this “normal work panic”, an essential respect for the “thing-in-itself” which you may think is your idea but actually exists outside of you. Even though you’re the one putting the words on a sheet of paper or the screen of a word-processor, you need to recognise yourself as a kind of channel for this thing, be patient and let it come of its own accord. Like cats, ideas don’t respond well to being forced or told what to do. If you want the love of an idea, you need to keep it sweet by providing a nice home for it and cultivating the circumstances under which it will be fruitful – but even if you do, sometimes it’ll just up and disappear and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to wait until it comes back – if it does come back, that is. To mix my metaphors, Umberto Eco, author of The Name of the Rose, once said about writing a bestselling novel in middle-age that it’s a bit like being chased by a dog: you come across a stream and somehow you manage to jump the stream and escape, but when you look back from the other side you wonder to yourself whether you were just lucky, or if could you do it again… anyway, here’s the poem that, for better or worse, started it all off.
A cat wandered into my garden.
I was charmed. “Hello,” I said.
“Miaow,” it said.
I petted it and chatted to it.
“Miaow,” it said again.
It kept on miaowing until I fed it.
Food was the only thing that kept it quiet.
Then it came indoors, curled up in my lap
and purred itself to sleep.
Next morning the cat was still there,
still hungry, still miaowing.
I fed and petted it some more.
It seemed to like me. It stayed.
By now I was flattered as well as charmed.
“Wow,” I thought, “I have a cat now.
What a lovely thing to have in a life.”
Having a cat made me feel more human.
We became good friends, the cat and I,
and then one day it disappeared. Vanished.
Just upped and went of its own accord.
I was very upset. I had grown very attached to that cat.
But I tried not to take it personally.
Easy come, easy go, I thought – reminding myself
that it wasn’t even my cat to begin with.
This is just the way cats are, I said –
independent, self-sufficient, unsentimental.
I wished I could be more like that myself.
I looked for that cat everywhere, tried staking it out
with bowls of food in the garden, calling its name.
It didn’t have a name so I called out “Cat! Cat!”
But it didn’t come.
I thought of buying a cat of my own.
I went to the pet shop, was charmed and seduced
by a whole range of kittens and their tiny miaows.
But it broke my heart to have to choose one.
I was afraid that even if I did, it would only leave me one day
just like the first had done.
And anyway, that first one was impossible to replace.
I left the shop empty-handed.
These days I raggedly wander the streets,
still calling out “Cat!” from behind my straggly beard.
The passing children point at me and laugh.
“There goes the cat man!” they say.
I just smile, and they go on their way.
I loiter around pet shops,
stroke and chat to any cat I meet,
beg for pennies and spend them all on cans of Felix
in case the cat ever decides to come back.
I hope it does. Because if nothing else,
this poem will end rather badly.
(c) Thoughtcat Poetry Inc 1999 or thereabouts.