A Sweet Arrangement: Mary Oliver

This winter we got a dog. A rescue, Luna is a little poodle mix who has bounded into our lives, brown eyes wide, tail wagging, and tongue ready to cover any available face with a kiss. She is, put simply, magical.


It’s with that sentimental prologue that I open this admittedly softhearted post on Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, a 2013 collection that resonates with me in this February reading more than it might have a year ago when the only animals in my life were our three elderly cats.

Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for poems that were not about dogs, poems of nature and feeling that touched the masses and earned her a place in the collective hearts (and on the bookshelves) of many occasional readers of poetry. Dog Songs comes later in her story, a modest addition to Oliver’s canon, unapologetically focused on the profound goodness that is a dog.

Oliver writes to owners of dogs, or human companions of dogs, since as she says: “A dog comes to you and lives with you in your own house, but you / do not therefore own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them” and her poems ring true to anyone who has been out for a walk with a dog, pulled away from our very human workaday world. In “Her Grave” Oliver admits:

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the
smells of the world, but you know, watching her,
that you know
almost nothing.”

Is the poet imposing her own perspective on the world in general and the actions of the dog in particular? Sure. And…

The audience who seeks out Dog Songs is an audience ready to welcome such perspective. It reminds me of the line in Eric Idle’s “sortabiography” Always Look on the Bright Side of Life when he describes what it was like to play a live show to an enthusiastic crowd: “They had come for a good time and nothing would stop them. At one show in Winnipeg the curtain rose to reveal the entire front row dressed as a caterpillar. You can’t really fail with an audience like that.”

So too the readers of Dog Songs.

And as one of those readers, a freshly minted dog companion myself, I’m okay with that. I find myself moved by poems like Oliver’s “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night” and am happy to see in the poetry my own life reflected. 

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.”

For anyone dubious of Oliver’s “sweet arrangement” I’d say pick up another book, maybe some Billy Collins (a sly modern master), Seamus Heaney (another contemporary gem), or hearken back to Emily Dickinson and her clipped and marvelous verse. Poetry is a forest and if dogwood isn’t your tree, find a larch, pine, or mighty redwood.

I think I just drifted into a Monty Python reference. Sorry about that.

But returning to Oliver, whose dogs never demand an apology, and her ability to bend verse to encompass both the four-footed and those of us who walk on two legs, it is in poems like “The Dog Has Run Off Again (Benjamin)” where the poet invites parents (and educators like me) to consider the balance between freedom and order. How much of one is important to safety? How much of the other is important to life?

Her title forms the opening statement of the poem, followed by a reflection on much more than being a dog. “The Dog Has Run Off Again (Benjamin)”…

and I should start shouting his name
and clapping my hands,
but it has been raining all night
and the narrow creek has risen
is a tawny turbulence is rushing along
over the mossy stones
is surging forward
with a sweet loopy music
and therefore I don’t want to entangle it
with my own voice
calling summoning
my little dog to hurry back
look, the sunlight and the shadows are chasing each other
listen how the wind swirls and leaps and dives up and down
who am I to summon his hard and happy body
his four white feet that love to wheel and pedal
through the dark leaves
to come back to walk by my side, obedient.”

If, as Oliver suggested earlier, “you do not…own her, as you do not own the rain, or the trees, or the laws which pertain to them” then that obedience feels more unnatural than four white feet wheeling through the mud. As a parent and as a principal I think about this tension often. Oliver illuminates the dichotomy in a way that encourages pause.

Pause, not paws. Well, maybe both.

But you saw that coming.

The poems in Dog Songs grant puppies human features from “The Wicked Smile” to “The Poetry Teacher” though in most an honored canine status trumps any mere personification.

Oliver ends her book with eight pages of prose she titles “Dog Talk.”

A beautiful descriptive essay, “Dog Talk” brings Oliver’s poetic language to prose. “I have seen Ben,” she writes of her big rescue dog, “place his nose meticulously in to the shallow dampness of a deer’s hoofprint and shut his eyes as if listening. But it is smell he is listening to. The wild, high music of smell, that we know so little about.”

OliverOliver describes Ben’s companion in adventure in two sentences that speak volumes: “Bear is small and white with a curly tail. He was meant to be idle and pretty but learned instead to love the world, and to romp roughly with the big dogs.” Just as with Oliver’s verse, there is so much in these seemingly simple words. Oliver’s poetry, even the Pulitzer Prize winning, non-dog stuff, is filled with such richness, simple words illuminating deeper truth.

In Dog Songs that truth, or at least a part of it, is the idea Oliver uses to end her essay: “…wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also all the good attachments to that origin that we can keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world.”

So now it’s time for me to take Luna, our own bundle of fur clad magic, on a walk. As I do, watching her surge forward toward sweet smelling bushes, sniff the most interesting trees on the planet, and stiffen as she scents the next oncoming dog, I’ll keep Oliver’s words in mind: “You’re like a little wild thing / that was never sent to school.” Luna is our wild thing, a messenger to that rich and still magical first world. She is as appreciated in my family as Oliver’s Percy or Henry or Bear was to her. How fortunate we are to have dogs. How fortunate we are to have poets like Oliver sharing their perspective on the world. Could there be a sweeter arrangement?


Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield.

2 thoughts on “A Sweet Arrangement: Mary Oliver

  1. Pingback: A Many-Sided Mind: Robinson Jeffers | bjornpaige

  2. Pingback: Poetry Kiosk | bjornpaige

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