Cat and Adverb

When reading prose, we usually can follow the train of thought without having to pay particular attention to syntax. But poems often require us to deal consciously with syntax -— in fact, I originally wrote Grammar Once and for All to help my poetry students with this crucial aspect of reading. Here is a poem by William Carlos Williams (1883-1963) that is partly “about” syntax:

POEM

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot

The lines are cut so that the stress falls on the most important words of the action. We need to read slowly and pause briefly at the end of each line, almost as though to experience the suspense over what will come next.

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down

into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot

The poem consists of a single sentence running over two stanzas. It begins with an adverb clause:

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset

This modifies stepped, the finite verb of the main clause; it tells when the “stepping” took place. The subjects of stepped are right / forefoot and hind; as we’ll see, hind is an ellipted version of right hind foot.

Jamclosets, as the name suggests, are cupboards in which jam and other preserves are stored. Not that the cat was interested in what was inside—the closet was just something it was climbing over. We infer that the path across the top of the closet is almost completely blocked by a wide flowerpot: pit (line 10) would suggest that the pot is as deep as the length of the cat’s legs. Presumably, the cat would have wanted just to walk by the flowerpot, but apparently there was only enough room between the pot and the outer edge of the closet for its two left feet. So both right feet had to go into the pot. We can tell it’s the right hind foot because right forefoot comes first; and if there had been a change of right to left, the poem would have said so—the language of poems needs to be and is very precise.

One of the two focal points of the poem is a kind of humorous snapshot: the image of the cat at the awkward moment in which both right legs are in the flowerpot, as it were, up to its armpits. The other point is the great care with which the cat performed its manoeuvre. Ordinarily, the adverb carefully, which modifies stepped, could occupy a number of positions:

…first the right forefoot, then the hind

…stepped carefully down…
…stepped down carefully
(and maybe) …carefully stepped down…
Even perhaps a fourth: …stepped down in to the pit of the empty flowerpot [pause] carefully.

But in the poem, carefully comes in the most unusual and ordinarily unidiomatic position in the sentence, between the two subjects. This makes the adverb the most prominent word in the poem, as you’ll hear if you read it aloud.

Posted in Blog, Poetry

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