Bang Bang: On Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs

This poet (and she’s certainly not alone) frequents the shallows, staying within sight and earshot of the shore—swimming only where lifeguards stand ready.

I haven’t read all of Dog Songs—I’ve read enough. Not everyone is blessed with an excess of disposable income. Based on the samples I’ve uncovered (roughly 20% of the total contents), I would wager my sight, along with any savings and future earnings, against the likelihood that the remaining poems will approach some exalted level, even by accident.

She’s no Gertrude Stein. I doubt many (if any at all) of her gushing adherents, finding the opening line in Dog Songs neat and quotable, would catch the cheap allusion.

How It Begins*

A puppy is a puppy is a puppy.

He’s probably in a basket with a bunch

of other puppies.

Then he’s a little older and he’s nothing

but a bundle of longing.

He doesn’t even understand it.

Then someone picks him up and says,

“I want this one.”

“What we want in a poem is not some half-baked comment that any momentarily inspired ass might make, but a piece of work—let’s call it art—which embodies in a memorable way, through its sound, the images it presents, its rhythmical solidity and intensity, a part of our lives, recognizable and hidden; and which at the same time offers us in its contained beauty, its grace of structure and expression, an alternative to the ugliness and stupidity, the emptiness and triviality of which our life is too often made.” (John Haines)

Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night*

He puts his cheek against mine

and makes small, expressive sounds.

And when I’m awake, or awake enough

he turns upside down, his four paws in the air

and his eyes dark and fervent.

“Tell me you love me,” he says.

“Tell me again.”

Could there be a sweeter arrangement? Over and over

he gets to ask.

I get to tell.

If this qualifies as poetry, then anything—any word, syllable, grunt uttered in any manner, at any time (and subsequently jotted down in uneven lines)—equals poetry. No need to worry about extensive training, study, effort, stamina, perseverance. The uninformed, noting all the lavish endorsements for Mary Oliver, and delighting in Dog Songs, could safely conclude “that one’s individual experience in the world is sufficient material to make poetry out of.” What a shame. There’s little talk of extinction: aesthetic distance, craftsmanship, profundity.

She very much loves to see “dogs without leashes.” Riding on the local bike path near home, I greatly appreciate unleashed dogs—the disruption and threat they pose. Leash law: unenforced (despite signs posted along the path for anyone in doubt).

Where do we stand? “Eventually, the market takes over, and from being the special gift of a chosen few, talent becomes an ability of many to produce some sort of saleable verse.” (John Haines) We’re in desperately short supply of muzzles, both for this decrepit poet and those predatory publishers hell-bent on profit.

For those needing a boost, donate the amount otherwise spent on this book to a local charity.

*WordPress, perhaps sensing the gross inferiority of these poems, omitted all stanza breaks. No harm done.

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