Dogs are hard to write about well. In no small part because of the tendency of dog owners (I am one) to either anthropomorphize or Lassie-ize. But a good dog poem is not impossible. Here are four that I think not only cover most of the emotional ground of being a dog owner, but also succeed as poems.
Let’s start with taking the dog out to poop. A large part of a dog-owning life. Howard Nemerov‘s “Walking the Dog” has a pragmatic, cynical-but-bemused tone about dog ownership. It begins
Two universes mosey down the street
Connected by love and a leash and nothing else.
Mostly I look at lamplight through the leaves
While he mooches along with tail up and snout down
Getting a secret knowledge through the nose
Almost entirely hidden from my sight
And later he also calls himself and the dog “a pair of symbionts/Contented not to think each other’s thoughts.” This is dog as dog. Pet, sure, loved, sure, but I don’t expect to hear any extra vowels added to the dog’s name in cooing tones. The poem then moves to its main topic, that which they have in common on their excursion:
Our interest in shit. We know its every state
From steaming fresh through stink to nature’s way
Of sluicing it downstreet dissolved in rain
Or drying it to dust that blows away.
The poem wraps up, after the dog has found “the place precise” and — well I can’t really say ‘done his business’ since Nemerov so straightforwardly calls it by its common name — anyway, then “we both with dignity walk home/And just to show who’s master I write the poem.” This last line doesn’t quite qualify as one of those surprising devastating/uplifting last lines I like, but it is a nice move that elicits just a snort of laughter, and I think it brings the whole poem’s attitude to a nice close.
Another ‘out walking the dog’ poem, David Young’s “Black Lab“ is much less cynical, a poem of bemused contemplation of and inspired by the dog. Sometimes dogs lead us to catalog types of excrement, sometimes they comfort even as they remind us of our place in the world. I like the steadiness of Young’s voice in this poem, steady with humor — “It’s best to take God backward” — as the black lab “wherein mad scientists/concoct excessive energy” pulls the poem from depression to spirituality to mortality to the whole universe. Lovely language and careful thought.
John Updike’s “Dog’s Death“ is one of the sadder poems I can think of, the combination of matter-of-fact description of a puppy’s death, “We found her twisted and limp but still alive./In the car to the vet’s, on my lap, she tried/to bite my hand and died” with lines like “her heart was learning to lie down forever” and “Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her” breaks the heart. Sad poems are hard to do without going maudlin or saccharine. “Dog’s Death” hits its note and holds it true.
On the flip side there’s joy, an emotion which might be plagued with even more poetic pitfalls than sadness. But Mark Doty’s “Golden Retrievals“ is a poem that gets away with not only joyousness but also two terrible puns (the title and “Woof!” right in the middle) and the term “bow-wow” three times. And the whole thing is in the dog’s voice. And it’s a sonnet. “Golden Retrievals” should, by that recipe, be a truly terrible poem, but it is instead wonderful and moving (and quite fun to read aloud).