Near the end of Mary Oliver's most recent collection of poetry is a short essay in which she has a revelation about the titular animal, one that deserves to be reprinted in full:
But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also the good attachments of that origin that we keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.Suddenly, after over 100 pages of short verse, Oliver explains the true significance of dogs in the lives of human beings--they are a connection to our long-ago days of wildness and freedom, they are an appreciation of what a physical body can do, they exist beyond themselves--and in doing so demonstrates an understanding of her subject that is, sad to say, entirely missing from the three dozen poems that come before, in which Oliver gives herself over to blatant sentimentality and literary simplicity. There are good ideas here, all of them based on Oliver's lifetime of ownership--one dog who cannot stop breaking the ropes that bind it, another that is buried in the wilderness from which its forebearers came, a third that is "a hedonist" in its eating--but they are rendered empty by her inability to separate her own emotional attachments to each dog from the lines she writes about them. Reading her book is almost like--and excuse me for the crassness of this analogy--a lonely pet-owner reduced to boring her friends with silly stories because she has so little else to talk about.
The other dog--the one that all its life walks leashed and obedient down the sidewalk--is what a chair is to a tree. It is a possession only, the ornament of a human life. Such dogs can remind us of nothing large or noble or mysterious or lost. They cannot make us sweeter or more kind.
Only unleashed dogs can do that. They are a kind of poetry themselves when they are devoted not only to us but to the wet night, to the moon and the rabbit-smell in the grass and their own bodies leaping forward. (117-118)
Which is not the way it should be, and it's not the way it has to be. Oliver is a gifted writer who understands how to balance all the ingredients of poetry--emotion, personal significance, meaning, style, form--so they become a cohesive work of art. She's been doing it for decades, and about aspects of her own life--her sexuality, faith, death--that would cause other, less-skilled poets to crumble.* And yet with Dog Songs, she seems to have lost--or thrown aside--the scales that have kept her poetry in measured equilibrium for so long. For example, take "Percy Wakes Me," a poem in which Oliver literally describes being woken up by her dog, she ends her account of the morning--Percy under the covers, Percy on the kitchen counter, Percy being doted upon with delight before breakfast--by writing, "This is a poem about Percy. / This is a poem about more than Percy. / Think about it." This simple, three-line stanza violates the very foundations on which poetry is based, namely that any sort of underlying meaning does not need to be highlighted: you must trust the reader to see your meaning, as well as whatever meaning they themselves bring to the poem, and if they cannot or will not, then at least leave them with a decent poem in which they can escape for a minute or two. By concluding "Percy Wakes Me" with a winking imploration to her readers, almost like we ourselves were being trained to do some little trick for the amusement of our owner, Oliver is betraying a mistrust in her readers...a belief that, without prodding us, we won't know to look further and figure something out.
Which is not the only time Oliver does this in her collection. At the end of "Benjamin, Who Came From Who Knows Where," Oliver caps a study of the titular dog--a hound who is scared of brooms and kindling--by writing, "Benny, I say / don't worry. I also know the way / the old life haunts the new." A meaningful closing thought, to be sure, but one that not only summarizes the lines that have come before it--again, showing a complete mistrust in the abilities of her readers--but could easily be substituted with the author's own ruminations on what it's like to be haunted, thereby adding depth to her poetry and drawing connections between two differing species in a way that would add an extra level of humanity to their relationship without it being so blatant. At the end of "Bad Day," in which a dog named Ricky rips up Oliver's couch after she ignores him for most of the day, Oliver allows Ricky to speak: "Honestly, what do you expect? Like / you I'm not perfect, I'm only human." And at the end of "How A Lot of Us Become Friends," in which Oliver's Ricky meets another dog--Lucy, owned by a woman named Theresa--in the park and become friendly with each other almost immediately, Oliver comments, "So how could Theresa and I not start / on that day to become friends?"
That's not to say Oliver can't write whatever poetry she wants to; the entire point of art, after all, is to create something personal, regardless of any meaning it may or may not have to others. Art is emotional, expressive, and revealing in its own right, and we be a different person at the end of an artistic adventure, have a new understanding of ourselves or our craft...otherwise, the entire practice is pointless. It's clear from Oliver's poetry that she believes in this fully--the ability of poetry to represent our own world and experiences in new ways--and again, that's a good thing. Where Oliver runs into problems is that she has collected and published those poems without tempering her own emotional investments: they are so prevalent, so heavy, that anyone hoping to access those same emotions cannot, as Oliver's claims over them are almost impenetrable. Sure, there are places in which dog-owners and dog-lovers can see similarities to their own experiences--a lonely puppy being chosen from a basket, an attention-starved mutt ripping at furniture, an old dog falling asleep in the nooks of your arms--but the parallels to our own lives, not to mention the importance of dogs in understanding ourselves, which Oliver herself advocates, are rendered almost untouchable.
The greatest irony in Oliver's poetry is that, when taken with the revelations in her closing essay, she seems to fight back against her very own observations on what we should learn from dogs: she is keeping her poetry focused almost solely on herself, her feelings, and her experiences rather than what they teach us about ourselves. (And when she does unleash her ideas, as she does in "Percy Wakes Me" and "Benjamin, Who Came From Who Knows Where," she cannot help but tell us just what she wants us to see, learn, and understand. In a sense, she cannot let us off the leash long enough to explore on our own before the rope is back around our necks and she is leading us away from the rich, unexplored wilderness and toward the lawn she herself has manicured into soft perfection. Sure, it's a lawn--it looks and feels and smells of nature--but it's no substitute.) Oliver says that dogs are a poetry unto themselves who are devoted "not only to us" but to the great openness life, and yet she has collected a few dozen poems that do not take after the very subjects they praise.
*To see an example of Oliver's skill at balancing her poetry, see her poem "Wild Geese."
Dogs: A Poem
A dog should be wild, unkempt,
It hair slick with the dirt and dandruff
Of life among the trees;
Pick out the burrs and needles by the fire,
The mud caked in balls like
A universe of worlds along his spine,
And toss aside those manufactured toys--
A dog plays with wood and earth only,
His teeth worn down by branches that have been
Shed by trees older than you and him,
Older than the blood that runs like rivers
Through both of your tired bodies;
A dog works with paws rough with the calluses
Of his ancestors, as though he were made
To dig trenches in which he will prepare for war:
Against the creatures he does not know,
The sounds he doesn't like to hear, the loneliness
In which you will eventually leave him.
A dog works with his eyes--bright ghostly novas
Rendered as marbles in a darkness
That your own eyes will never understand;
He understands that night is what he visits
Upon the animals of the forest, and that soon
This darkness will turn its allegiances.
Let this tired warrior curl up beside you,
And let the fire of his heart compete against
The fire of your hearth, burning your skin
Like a tattoo one thousand years in the making--
A carving on a cave wall, initials in the bark of a tree,
A fortress of rock that is scarred by rain.
Tomorrow you and he will rest,
Eyes unable to see the shadows around you,
Of man and beast traipsing in from the past,
Stopping only to wipe their feet on the rug
While the man, his eyes adjusting, slides a hand
Down behind two tired ears, and scratches.