The First Recording of Allen Ginsberg Reading “Howl” (1956)

Allen_ginsberg_erads howl

Image by Michiel Hendryckx, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Occa­sion­al­ly I slip into an ivory tow­er men­tal­i­ty in which the idea of a banned book seems quaint—associated with sil­ly scan­dals over the tame sex scenes in James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence. After all, I think, we live in an age when best­seller lists are topped (no pun) by tawdry fan fic­tion like Fifty Shades of Grey. Nothing’s sacred. But this notion is a mas­sive blind spot on my part; the whole aware­ness-rais­ing mis­sion of the annu­al Banned Books Week seeks to dis­pel such com­pla­cen­cy. Books are chal­lenged, sup­pressed, and banned all the time in pub­lic schools and libraries, even if we’ve moved past out­right gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship of the pub­lish­ing indus­try.

It’s also easy to for­get that Allen Ginsberg’s gen­er­a­tion-defin­ing poem “Howl” was once almost a casu­al­ty of cen­sor­ship. The most like­ly suc­ces­sor to Walt Whitman’s vision, Ginsberg’s orac­u­lar utter­ances did not sit well with U.S. Cus­toms, who in 1957 tried to seize every copy of the British sec­ond print­ing. When that failed, police arrest­ed the poem’s pub­lish­er, Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, and he and Ginsberg’s “Howl” were put on tri­al for obscen­i­ty. Appar­ent­ly, phras­es like “cock and end­less balls” did not sit well with the author­i­ties. But the court vin­di­cat­ed them all.

The sto­ry of Howl’s pub­li­ca­tion begins in 1955, when 29-year-old Gins­berg read part of the poem at the Six Gallery, where Ferlinghetti—owner of San Francisco’s City Lights book­store—sat in atten­dance. Decid­ing that Ginsberg’s epic lament “knocked the sides out of things,” Fer­linghet­ti offered to pub­lish “Howl” and brought out the first edi­tion in 1956. Pri­or to this read­ing, “Howl” exist­ed in the form of an ear­li­er poem called “Dream Record, 1955,” which poet Ken­neth Rexroth told Gins­berg sound­ed “too for­mal… like you’re wear­ing Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Brooks Broth­ers ties.” Ginsberg’s rewrite jet­ti­soned the ivy league deco­rum.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, no audio exists of that first read­ing, but above you can hear the first record­ed read­ing of “Howl,” from Feb­ru­ary, 1956 at Portland’s Reed Col­lege. The record­ing sat dor­mant in Reed’s archives for over fifty years until schol­ar John Suit­er redis­cov­ered it in 2008. In it, Gins­berg reads his great prophet­ic work, not with the cadences of a street preach­er or jazzman—both of which he had in his repertoire—but in an almost robot­ic monot­o­ne with an under­tone of man­ic urgency. Ginsberg’s read­ing, before an inti­mate group of stu­dents in a dor­mi­to­ry lounge, took place only just before the first print­ing of the poem in the City Lights edi­tion.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in 2013. Over the years, the audio orig­i­nal­ly fea­tured in the post, along with many of the links, went dead. So we gave every­thing a refresh and brought it back.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Allen Gins­berg Record­ings Brought to the Dig­i­tal Age. Lis­ten to Eight Full Tracks for Free

James Fran­co Reads a Dream­i­ly Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

2,000+ Cas­settes from the Allen Gins­berg Audio Col­lec­tion Now Stream­ing Online

Allen Ginsberg’s “Celes­tial Home­work”: A Read­ing List for His Class “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats”

13 Lec­tures from Allen Ginsberg’s “His­to­ry of Poet­ry” Course (1975)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Bukowski Reads Bukowski: Watch a 1975 Documentary Featuring Charles Bukowski at the Height of His Powers

In 1973, Richard Davies direct­ed Bukows­ki, a doc­u­men­tary that TV Guide described as a “cin­e­ma-verite por­trait of Los Ange­les poet Charles Bukows­ki.” The film finds Bukows­ki, then 53 years old, “enjoy­ing his first major suc­cess,” and “the cam­era cap­tures his rem­i­nis­cences … as he walks around his Los Ange­les neigh­bor­hood. Blunt lan­guage and a sly appre­ci­a­tion of his life form the core of the pro­gram, which includes obser­va­tions by and about the women in his life.”

The orig­i­nal film clocked in at 46 min­utes. Then, two years lat­er, PBS released a “heav­i­ly-edit­ed 28-minute ver­sion of the film,” using alter­nate scenes and a rearranged struc­ture. Renamed Bukows­ki Reads Bukows­ki, the film aired on Thurs­day, Octo­ber 16, 1975. And, true to its name, the film fea­tures footage of Bukows­ki read­ing his poems, start­ing with “The Rat,” from the 1972 col­lec­tion Mock­ing­bird Wish Me Luck. You can watch Bukows­ki Reads Bukows­ki above, and find more Bukows­ki read­ings in the Relat­eds below.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Hear 130 Min­utes of Charles Bukowski’s First-Ever Record­ed Read­ings (1968)

Charles Bukows­ki Reads His Poem “The Secret of My Endurance

Tom Waits Reads Charles Bukows­ki

Four Charles Bukows­ki Poems Ani­mat­ed


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Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium: A Beautiful Digital Edition of the Poet’s Pressed Plants & Flowers Is Now Online

So many writ­ers have been gar­den­ers and have writ­ten about gar­dens that it might be eas­i­er to make a list of those who didn’t. But even in this crowd­ed com­pa­ny, Emi­ly Dick­in­son stands out. She not only attend­ed the frag­ile beau­ty of flow­ers with an artist’s eye—before she’d writ­ten any of her famous verse—but she did so with the keen eye of a botanist, a field of work then open to any­one with the leisure, curios­i­ty, and cre­ativ­i­ty to under­take it.

“In an era when the sci­en­tif­ic estab­lish­ment barred and bolt­ed its gates to women,” Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va writes, “botany allowed Vic­to­ri­an women to enter sci­ence through the per­mis­si­ble back­door of art.”

In Dickinson’s case, this involved the press­ing of plants and flow­ers in an herbar­i­um, pre­serv­ing their beau­ty, and in some mea­sure, their col­or for over 150 years. The Har­vard Gazette describes this very frag­ile book, made avail­able in 2006 in a full-col­or dig­i­tal fac­sim­i­le on the Har­vard Library site:

Assem­bled in a pat­terned green album bought from the Spring­field sta­tion­er G. & C. Mer­ri­am, the herbar­i­um con­tains 424 spec­i­mens arranged on 66 leaves and del­i­cate­ly attached with small strips of paper. The spec­i­mens are either native plants, plants nat­u­ral­ized to West­ern Mass­a­chu­setts, where Dick­in­son lived, or house­plants. Every page is accom­pa­nied by a tran­scrip­tion of Dickinson’s neat hand­writ­ten labels, which iden­ti­fies each plant by its sci­en­tif­ic name.

The book is thought to have been fin­ished by the time she was 14 years old. Long part of Harvard’s Houghton Library col­lec­tion, it has also long been treat­ed as too frag­ile for any­one to view. The only access has come in the form of grainy, black and white pho­tographs. For the past few years, how­ev­er, schol­ars and lovers of Dickinson’s work have been able to see the herbar­i­um in these stun­ning repro­duc­tions.

The pages are so for­mal­ly com­posed they look like paint­ings from a dis­tance. Though most­ly unknown as a poet in her life, Dick­in­son was local­ly renowned in Amherst as a gar­den­er and “expert plant iden­ti­fi­er,” notes Sara C. Ditsworth. The herbar­i­um may or may not offer a win­dow of insight into Dickinson’s lit­er­ary mind. Houghton Library cura­tor Leslie A. Mor­ris, who wrote the for­ward to the fac­sim­i­le edi­tion, seems skep­ti­cal. “I think that you could read a lot into the herbar­i­um if you want­ed to,” she says, “but you have no way of know­ing.”

And yet we do. It may be impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate Dick­in­son the gar­den­er and botanist from Dick­in­son the poet and writer. As Ditsworth points out, “accord­ing to Judith Farr, author of The Gar­dens of Emi­ly Dick­in­son, one-third of Dickinson’s poems and half of her let­ters men­tion flow­ers. She refers to plants almost 600 times,” includ­ing 350 ref­er­ences to flow­ers. Both her herbar­i­um and her poet­ry can be sit­u­at­ed with­in the 19th cen­tu­ry “lan­guage of flow­ers,” a sen­ti­men­tal genre that Dick­in­son made her own, with her ellip­ti­cal entwin­ing of pas­sion and secre­cy.

The first two spec­i­mens in Dickinson’s herbar­i­um are the jas­mine and the priv­et: “You have jas­mine for poet­ry and pas­sion” in the lan­guage of flow­ers, Mor­ris points out, “and priv­et,” a hedge plant, “for pri­va­cy.” There is no need to see this arrange­ment as a pre­dic­tion of the future from the teenage botanist Dick­in­son. Did she plan from ado­les­cence to become a recluse poet in lat­er life? Per­haps not. But we can cer­tain­ly “read into” the lan­guage of her herbar­i­um some of the same great themes that recur over and over in her work, car­ried across by images of plants and flow­ers. See Dickinson’s com­plete herbar­i­um at Har­vard Library’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tions here, or pur­chase a (very expen­sive) fac­sim­i­le edi­tion of the book here.

Note: Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sur­pris­ing Map of Plants: A New Ani­ma­tion Shows How All the Dif­fer­ent Plants Relate to Each Oth­er

His­toric Man­u­script Filled with Beau­ti­ful Illus­tra­tions of Cuban Flow­ers & Plants Is Now Online (1826)

How Emi­ly Dick­in­son Writes A Poem: A Short Video Intro­duc­tion

The Sec­ond Known Pho­to of Emi­ly Dick­in­son Emerges

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

Gillian Anderson Reads Anaïs Nin’s Passionate Letter about Sex and Poetry

From Let­ters Live comes a let­ter read by Gillian Ander­son. They pref­ace it with this: “In 1932, Cuban diarist Anaïs Nin and Amer­i­can nov­el­ist Hen­ry Miller began an incred­i­bly intense love affair that would last for many years. In the 1940s, at which point she, Miller, and a col­lec­tive of oth­er writ­ers were earn­ing $1 per page writ­ing erot­ic fic­tion for the pri­vate con­sump­tion of an anony­mous client known only as the “Col­lec­tor,” Nin wrote a pas­sion­ate let­ter to this mys­te­ri­ous fig­ure and made known her frustrations—frustrations caused by his repeat­ed insis­tence that they ‘leave out the poet­ry’ and instead ‘con­cen­trate on sex.’ ”

This let­ter comes from The Diary Of Anais Nin Vol­ume 3.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

A Brief Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Noam Chomsky’s Lin­guis­tic The­o­ry, Nar­rat­ed by The X‑Files’ Gillian Ander­son

Hen­ry Miller Makes a List of “The 100 Books That Influ­enced Me Most”

Hear Anaïs Nin Read From Her Cel­e­brat­ed Diary: A 60-Minute Vin­tage Record­ing (1966)

How Did Every­thing Begin?: Ani­ma­tions on the Ori­gins of the Uni­verse Nar­rat­ed by X‑Files Star Gillian Ander­son

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Patti Smith Reads Sylvia Plath’s Poem, “The Moon and the Yew Tree”

Court Green, the rur­al Devon prop­er­ty Sylvia Plath called home for six­teen months toward the end of her life is a pop­u­lar pil­grim­age for Plathophiles, seek­ing to wor­ship at the well­spring of some of her best known poems — The Bee Meet­ing, Dad­dy, Lady Lazarus, and many oth­er works posthu­mous­ly pub­lished in 1965’s Ariel.

(Her ex-hus­band Ted Hugh­es wrote his col­lec­tion, Crow, there as well, not long after Plath died by sui­cide. Some­thing tells us his wid­ow, Car­ol, a staunch defend­er of her husband’s lega­cy, doesn’t exact­ly roll out the wel­come mat when she sees star­ry eyed devotee’s of her husband’s first wife tromp­ing around the perime­ter of the prop­er­ty where she still lives…)

Plath schol­ar Dor­ka Tamás made the trip to St. Peter’s, the North Taw­ton church abut­ting Court Green. Plath took plea­sure in describ­ing its grounds in let­ters to friends and fam­i­ly, and immoratl­ized its mas­sive yew in “The Moon and the Yew Tree”:

I looked around the Vic­to­ri­an grave­stones, slow­ly pass­ing the souls of the dead. The beau­ti­ful green trees could not con­trast more with the Neo-goth­ic church. I knew at first sight which one is the yew tree in Plath’s poem. I was search­ing for the win­dow of Court Green, Plath’s office win­dow, from which she could have an expan­sive view of the yew…North Taw­ton has been an ambigu­ous place for both Plath and Plathi­ans. In the year she spent in the iso­lat­ed vil­lage, she pro­duced her best and most well-known poems, but it was also a place where she expe­ri­enced extreme iso­la­tion after Hugh­es left her. Nev­er­the­less, the coun­try life pro­vid­ed plen­ty of oppor­tu­ni­ties for Plath to explore her cre­ative, aes­thet­ic, and domes­tic inde­pen­dence, such as horse rid­ing in the field of Devon, exper­i­ment­ing with bee­keep­ing, paint­ing her children’s nurs­ery elbow chair, and mak­ing apple pie from the apples of her gar­den. The poet­ry and fic­tion Plath wrote between autumn 1961 and win­ter 1962 are embed­ded in the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment in Devon and com­mu­ni­ty, places, and non-human life of North Taw­ton. 

Poet David Trinidad, an avid col­lec­tor of Plath-relat­ed mem­o­ra­bil­ia, whose sou­venirs include a vial of dust from the stu­dio she occu­pied dur­ing a res­i­den­cy at Yad­do and a fac­sim­i­le of a blue pat­terned Lib­er­ty of Lon­don scarf she gave her moth­er dur­ing a 1962 vis­it to Court Green, prizes his cut­tings from St. Peter’s yew:

Plath wrote The Moon and the Yew Tree on Octo­ber 22, 1961, less than two months after mov­ing to Court Green. Every­thing in the poem is true: her prop­er­ty was sep­a­rat­ed from an adja­cent church by a row of head­stones; on Sun­day eight bells would toll; an ancient yew tree grew in the church grave­yard. …She doesn’t men­tion the yew tree specif­i­cal­ly in any of her let­ters; she saved that for the poem.

God­moth­er of Punk Pat­ti Smith, whose sou­venirs run more toward Polaroids, wrote of vis­it­ing Plath’s grave in her mem­oir, M Train, and iden­ti­fies the poet as some­one who makes her want to write.

Her per­for­mance of “The Moon and The Yew Tree,” above, is more straight­for­ward than Plathi­an, allow­ing the dark­ness of the work–which The Mar­gin­a­lian’s Maria Popo­va calls “one of (Plath’s) finest poems and one of the most poignant por­traits of depres­sion in the his­to­ry of literature”–to speak for itself.

As Popo­va notes, the poem was writ­ten dur­ing a dif­fi­cult peri­od, in an attempt to ful­fill a writ­ing exer­cise sug­gest­ed by Hugh­es, “to sim­ply describe what she saw in the Goth­ic church­yard out­side her win­dow.”

Who would dare fault Plath for obey­ing the impulse to edi­to­ri­al­ize a bit?

The New York­er had accept­ed but not yet pub­lished “The Moon and the Yew Tree” when Plath took her own life on Feb­ru­ary 11, 1963. It was pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in a two-page spread along with five oth­er poems six months lat­er. You can read it online here.

via The Mar­gin­a­lian

Relat­ed Con­tent 

Why Should We Read Sylvia Plath? An Ani­mat­ed Video Makes the Case

Hear Sylvia Plath Read 18 Poems From Her Final Col­lec­tion, Ariel, in a 1962 Record­ing

Hear Pat­ti Smith Read 12 Poems From Sev­enth Heav­en, Her First Col­lec­tion (1972)

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

How John Keats Writes a Poem: A Line-by-Line Breakdown of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

The Greek term ekphra­sis sounds rather exot­ic if you sel­dom come across it, but it refers to an act in which we’ve all engaged at one time or anoth­er: that is, describ­ing a work of art. The best ekphras­es make that descrip­tion as vivid as pos­si­ble, to the point where it becomes a work of art in itself. The Eng­lish lan­guage offers no bet­ter-known exam­ple of ekphras­tic poet­ry than John Keats’ “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn,” from 1819, which pulls off the neat trick of tak­ing both its sub­ject and its genre from the same ancient cul­ture — among oth­er virtues, of course, sev­er­al of which are explained by Evan Puschak, bet­ter known as the Nerd­writer, in his new video above, “How John Keats Writes a Poem.”

Puschak calls “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn” “arguably the best poem from arguably the best roman­tic poet,” then launch­es into a line-by-line exe­ge­sis, iden­ti­fy­ing the tech­niques Keats employs in its con­struc­tion. “The speak­er craves the ide­al, ever­last­ing love depict­ed on and sym­bol­ized by the urn,” he says. “But the way he express­es him­self — well, it’s almost embar­rass­ing, even hys­ter­i­cal, fever­ish.”

Keats uses com­pul­sive-sound­ing rep­e­ti­tion of words like hap­py and for­ev­er to “com­mu­ni­cate some­thing about the speak­er that runs counter to his words. It reminds me of those times when you hear some­one insist on how hap­py they are, but you know they’re just try­ing to will that fact into exis­tence by speak­ing it.”

In the course of the poem, “the speak­er begins to doubt his own crav­ings for the per­ma­nence of art. Is it real­ly as per­fect as he imag­ines?” Through­out, “he’s looked to the urn, to art, to assuage his despair about life,” a task to which it final­ly proves not quite equal. “In life, things change and fade, but they’re real. In art, things may be eter­nal, but they’re life­less.” The famous final lines of “Ode on a Gre­cian Urn” arrive at the con­clu­sion that “beau­ty is truth, truth beau­ty,” and how lit­er­al an inter­pre­ta­tion to grant it remains a mat­ter of debate. It may not real­ly be all we know on Earth, nor even all we need to know, but the fact that we’re still argu­ing about it two cen­turies lat­er speaks to the pow­er of art — as well as art about art.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Read John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightin­gale” and Oth­er Great Works by Shake­speare, Dante & Coleridge

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vas­es Come to Life with 21st Cen­tu­ry Ani­ma­tion

F. Scott Fitzger­ald Reads Shakespeare’s Oth­el­lo and Keats’ “Ode to a Nightin­gale” (1940)

Learn to Write Through a Video Game Inspired by the Roman­tic Poets: Shel­ley, Byron, Keats

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Watch Iggy Pop Perform Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Of the orig­i­nal mem­bers of the Stooges, only Iggy Pop still lives. He has by now sur­vived a great many oth­er cul­tur­al fig­ures who came up from the under­ground and into promi­nence through rock music in the nine­teen-sev­en­ties. And not only is he still alive, he’s still putting out albums: his most recent, Every Los­er, came out just this past Jan­u­ary. It fol­lowed Free, from 2019, which includes his read­ing of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night” — an idea, Aman­da Petru­sich notes in a con­tem­po­rary New York­er pro­file, that came “after an adver­tis­ing agency asked him to read the poem for a com­mer­cial voice-over.”

“At first, I resist­ed,” Pop says to Petru­sich. “I’m not in junior high.” Indeed, as a vehi­cle for the expres­sion of one’s own world­view, “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night” feels about one rung up from “The Road Not Tak­en.”

Petru­sich acknowl­edges that “the poem has grown increas­ing­ly mean­ing­less over time, hav­ing been repeat­ed and adapt­ed to so many inane cir­cum­stances. Yet if you can shake off its famil­iar­i­ty the cen­tral idea — that a per­son should live vig­or­ous­ly, unapolo­get­i­cal­ly — remains ger­mane.” Pop’s dis­tinc­tive Mid­west­ern voice, made hag­gard but res­o­nant by decade after decade of punk-rock rig­ors, also imbues it with an unex­pect­ed vital­i­ty.

It may sur­prise those who know Pop main­ly through his brazen onstage antics of half a cen­tu­ry ago that it would occur to him to read a poem at all. In fact, he’s a man of many and var­ied lit­er­ary inter­ests, hav­ing also per­formed the work of Walt Whit­man and Edgar Allan Poe, writ­ten about Edward Gib­bon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and made a film with Michel Houelle­becq (whose nov­els inspired Pop’s 2009 album Prélim­i­naires). All of this while he has kept on show­ing us, both on records and in live per­for­mances, how prop­er­ly to rage, rage — against the dying of the light, and much else besides.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Hear Dylan Thomas Recite His Clas­sic Poem, “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night”

Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night” Per­formed by John Cale (and Pro­duced by Bri­an Eno)

Iggy Pop Reads Walt Whit­man in Col­lab­o­ra­tions With Elec­tron­ic Artists Alva Noto and Tar­wa­ter

Sir Antho­ny Hop­kins Reads Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gen­tle Into That Good Night”

Iggy Pop Reads Edgar Allan Poe’s Clas­sic Hor­ror Sto­ry “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Dylan Thomas Sketch­es a Car­i­ca­ture of a Drunk­en Dylan Thomas

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

What People Named Their Cats in the Middle Ages: Gyb, Mite, Méone, Pangur Bán & More

“The Nam­ing of Cats is a dif­fi­cult mat­ter,” declares the open­ing poem in Old Pos­sum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats by T. S. Eliot. But the pos­si­bil­i­ties are many and var­ied: “Peter, Augus­tus, Alon­zo or James”; “Pla­to, Adme­tus, Elec­tra, Deme­ter”; “Munkus­trap, Quaxo, or Cori­co­pat.” Things must have been  less com­pli­cat­ed in the Mid­dle Ages, when you could just call a cat Gyb and be done with it. “The short­ened form of the male name Gilbert, Gyb” explains Kath­leen Walk­er-Meik­le in Medieval Cats, dates as “a pop­u­lar name for indi­vid­ual pet cats” at least back to the late four­teenth cen­tu­ry.

In a slight­ly dif­fer­ent form, the name even appears in Shake­speare, when Fal­staff describes him­self as “as melan­choly as a gib cat.” Gyb’s equiv­a­lent across the Chanel was Tibers or Tib­ert; the six­teenth-cen­tu­ry French poet Joachim du Bel­lay kept a “beloved gray cat” named Belaud.

Legal texts reveal that the Irish went in for “cat names that refer to the ani­mal’s phys­i­cal appear­ance,” like Méone (“lit­tle meow”), Cruib­ne (“lit­tle paws”), and Bréone (“lit­tle flame”). Walk­er-Meik­le also high­lights Pan­gur Bán, a cat “immor­tal­ized in a ninth-cen­tu­ry poem by an Irish monk.” This hymn to the par­al­lel skills of human and feline begins, in Sea­mus Heaney’s Eng­lish trans­la­tion, as fol­lows:

Pan­gur Bán and I at work,

Adepts, equals, cat and clerk:

His whole instinct is to hunt,

Mine to free the mean­ing pent.

Fre­quent Open Cul­ture read­ers may be remind­ed of the twelfth-cen­tu­ry Chi­nese poet who wrote of being domes­ti­cat­ed by his own cats, vers­es we fea­tured here a few years ago. More recent­ly, we put up a list of 1,065 Medieval dog names, which run the gamut from Gar­lik, Nose­wise, and Hosewife to Horny­ball, Argu­ment, and Filthe. You’ll notice that the names giv­en to dogs in the Mid­dle Ages seem to have been more amus­ing, if less dig­ni­fied, than the ones giv­en to cats. Per­haps this reflects the strong, clear­ly cen­turies-and-cen­turies-old dif­fer­ences between the natures of the ani­mals them­selves, each with its own strengths and weak­ness­es. But what­ev­er our pref­er­ences in that area, who among us could­n’t do with a Pan­gur Bán of our own?


Relat­ed con­tent:

A List of 1,065 Medieval Dog Names: Nose­wise, Gar­lik, Have­g­ood­day & More

Cats in Medieval Man­u­scripts & Paint­ings

Cats in Japan­ese Wood­block Prints: How Japan’s Favorite Ani­mals Came to Star in Its Pop­u­lar Art

T. S. Eliot Reads Old Possum’s Book of Prac­ti­cal Cats & Oth­er Clas­sic Poems (75 Min­utes, 1955)

In 1183, a Chi­nese Poet Describes Being Domes­ti­cat­ed by His Own Cats

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.