Finding the Animals in Modern Poetry

01 Mar 2015 |

Why do some of us read, and occasionally write, poetry?

Because we find in poetry a language of emotion and intellect that somehow corresponds to events of our own lives, emotions that we have felt, and revelations that other persons have seen and felt similar circumstances and thoughts. Our attraction to a particular poem, or individual poet, or themes in poetry is often determined by how we feel about ourselves, our connections to others, to the world, and to the past. For many of us in the furry community, our relationship to animals is more than just looking at art images on our electronic media, or enjoying the good times at cons. Animals have a special place in our lives and we construct our mental lives at least partly upon them, whether they are real animals or not. We read and write them into our life.

Poetry involving animal themes, written by modern poets, is somewhat difficult to find. My research has shown me that there are very few modern poets who have a large body of animal themed works. Poets in general write about a broad and profound range of human events and subjects but animals and our relationships to them are only a small part of modern academic poetry, perhaps because the lives of humans gives them so much material to draw upon. When they do write animals into their poems, they may not be writing about a specific animal but the animal may be the poet's symbol or metaphor for a subject, or for the poet himself or herself. A good example of this is Denise Levertov's Talking To Grief in her use of the dog as a simile for her experience of grief. Her poem is an example of how authors, and any of us, may use poetry and other forms of writing to make difficult experiences in our life easier to mentally grasp.

Talking To Grief

Ah, Grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.

I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.

You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name,
your collar and tag. You need
the right to warn off intruders,
to consider
my house your own
and me your person
and yourself
my own dog.

Mark Strand's Eating Poetry describes the poet himself and his enjoyment of poetry as a happy and active dog.

Eating Poetry

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

It is rare that the poet lets the animals speak directly to us. Mark Strand does this in his Five Dogs, and Koon Woon in his Excerpts from "In Water Buffalo Time". Reading these, the reader will see what a good job a skilled poet can do in personifying an animal.

(excerpt from In Water Buffalo Time)

...Yet a man, with all his skill on an abacus, is afraid
Of things he cannot see. The man and his family
Are afraid of dark, gloomy gods handed down to them
And buy copious amounts of incense and charms.
My mother, whose teats I suckled for only a brief while,
Gave me no such gods of thunder to fear.

I don't even fear tigers. A man is cursed with worry:
Thieves because he has too much, fires because he is careless,
And ghosts because he offends others.
But I, with the gold-pleated sky for a blanket,
Sweet-smelling rice straw for a bed, a breeze from the river,
I have recompense for my toil, with the village symphony
Of crickets, cicadas, and bullfrogs,
I shall say beasthood is as good as Buddhahood...

Much of modern poetry with an animal theme is either the poet's description of the animal or a narrative, the telling of a story, of the animal. Robert Bly offers us his observation of cattle in a barn (in a prose poem), with a poetic conclusion.

Opening the Door of a Barn I Thought Was Empty on New Year's Eve

   I got there by dusk. The west shot up a red beam. I open the double barn doors and go in. Sounds of breathing! Thirty steers are wandering around, the partitions gone. Creatures heavy, shaggy, slowly moving in the dying light. Bodies with no St. Teresas look straight at me. The floor is cheerful with clean straw. Snow gleams in the feeding lot through the other door. The bony legs of the steers look frail in the pale light from the snow, like uncles living in a city.

   A barn is a sort of house...the windowpanes clotted with dust and cobwebs. The dog stands up on his hind legs to look over the worn wooden gate. Large shoulders watch him, and he suddenly puts his legs down, frightened. After a while, he puts them up again. A steer's head swings to look at him, and stares for three or four minutes, unable to get a clear picture from the instinct reservoir, then suddenly bolts...

   But their enemies are asleep, the barn is asleep...These breathing ones do not demand eternal life, they ask only to eat the crushed corn, and the hay, coarse as rivers, and cross the rivers, and sometimes feel an affection run along the heavy nerves. They have the wonder and bewilderment of the whale, with too much flesh, the body with the lamp lit inside, fluttering on a windy night.

Death and loss in animal themed poems

Loss, tragedy, dying and death have been common themes in poetry since the begining of literature. These themes are also found in modern animal themed poems.

In reading the work of the modern poets of the late 19th century and the 20th century, it may be helpful to keep in mind how most people regarded animals in that time. Until almost the middle of the 20th century, in both rural and urban areas, domestic animals were considered to be machines to be worked and exploited until the animal died. Vachel Lindsay's The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken, and Donald Hall's Names of Horses express this. Wild animals were regarded as another natural resource to be taken by force, as in William Stafford's Meditation and James Dickey's Approaching Prayer.

(excerpt from Approaching Prayer)

...The sun mounts my hackles
And I fall; I roll
In the water;
My tongue spills blood
Bound for the ocean;
It moves away, and I see
The trees strain and part, see him
Look upward

Inside the hair helmet I look upward out of the total
Stillness of killing with arrows. I have seen the hog see me kill him
And I was as still as I hoped...

The modern poets are capable of expressing a feeling of poignancy regarding aging and loss as we find in Robert Creeley's part 6 from his poem Later when he writes,

(excerpt from "Later", part 6)

...After all
these years,

no dog's coming home
again. It's skin's

through rain, dirt,

to dust, hair alone
survives, matted tangle.

Your own, changed,
your hair, greyed,

your voice not the one
used to call him home...

Mark Strand also writes poignantly of loss and decline of life in his Five Dogs.

(excerpt from Five Dogs )

...I am the last of the platinum
Retrievers, the end of a gorgeous line.
But there's no comfort being who I am.
I roam around and ponder fate's abolishments
Until my eyes are filled with tears and I say to myself, "Oh Rex,
Forget. Forget. The stars are out. The marble moon slides by."

Although throughout history humans have had favored pets and we do find writing in both prose and poetry from earlier times expressing more sentimental feelings toward them, descriptions of the death of animals as harsh and even cruel are common in animal-themed poetry. An outstanding exception to this is W.S. Merwin's more contemporary Fox Sleep, which is essentially about the Buddhist ideas of enlightenment. In that poem, the death of the fox is an expression of the idea of release from the Karmic wheel into enlightenment and nirvana.

(excerpt from Fox Sleep)

...I spoke to them
   about waking until one day one of them asked me
When someone has wakened to what is really there
   is that person free of the chain of consequences
and I answered yes and with that I turned into a fox
   and I have been a fox for five hundred lives
and now I have come to ask you to say what will
   free me from the body of a fox please tell me
when someone has wakened to what is really there
   is that person free of the chain of consequences
and this time the answer was That person sees it as it is
   then the old man said Thank you for waking me...

Robinson Jeffers includes an idea of rebirth in his poem, Vulture.

(excerpt from Vulture)

...I could see the naked red head between the great wings
Bear downward staring. I said, "My dear bird, we are wasting time here.
These old bones will still work: they are not for you." But how beautiful he
     looked , gliding down
On those great sails; how beautiful he looked, veering away in the sea-light
     over the precipice. I tell you solemnly
That I was sorry to have disappointed him. To be eaten by that beak
       and become part of him, to share those wings and those eyes--
What a sublime end of one's body, what an enskyment; what a life after

And finally, James Dickey's The Heaven of Animals offers us a revelation of their Heaven.

(excerpt from The Heaven of Animals)

Here they are. The soft eyes open.
If they have lived in a wood
It is a wood.
If they have lived on plains it is grass rolling
Under their feet forever.

Having no souls, they have come,
Anyway, beyond their knowing.
Their instincts wholly bloom
And they rise.
The soft eyes open...

Poetic LOLs ?!

We of the furry community know that animals can be fun and funny, and so do some modern poets.

Billy Collins' Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House is a good example. Gary Snyder's Smokey Bear Sutra is amusing, witty, and wise. Philip Levine's A Theory of Prosody is a poem with more subtle humor, shown when he writes about his cat who applies a sharp claw to his hand as he is writing, to get him to briefly stop writing. The reader must observe that the poem has some awkward line endings (presumably caused by the cat) in order to grasp Levine's jest.

(excerpt from A Theory of Prosody)

When Nellie, my old pussy
cat, was still in her prime,
she would sit behind me
as I wrote, and when the line
got too long she'd reach
one sudden black foreleg down
and paw at the moving hand,
the offensive one. The first
time she drew blood I learned
it was poetic to end a line anywhere to keep her
quiet. After all, many morn-
ings she'd gotten to the chair
long before I was even up...

So, furry readers, there is modern poetry out there in the literary world that speaks to us. I continue to look for animal-themed poems and I hope those of you reading this will enjoy what I have found so far and that you will seek out even more.

See here for a full list of all referenced works, and many other animal poems, hosted at Shining River's Dreamwidth journal.

In the coming days, [adjective][species] will be publishing small subsets of this long list of animal poetry, curated by Shining River. We hope you enjoy.

This article, as it contains full copies of some of the poems mentioned, falls under a more strict license.  It may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.