Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

You can be a dog person. Or a cat person. Or a dog, cat, and hamster person. Whatever your preference, you can write poetry about the little monster in question.

That’s where Mary Oliver’s 2013 poetry tome Dog Songs enters the fray. Oliver sadly passed in January 2019 aged 83, but she was an American poet and winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize.

Almost a decade after the book’s launch, what better than to take a look at these poems, some dogs, and other stuffs?!

A Homage to Four-Legged Woofs in Dog Songs

There are other canine books, such as Seth Casteel’s Underwater Dogs, that catch the striking lunacy of dogs in action. All that manic enthusiasm.

Dog Songs is a bit different—more melodic.

These animals do have their more graceful moments, which is captured in Oliver’s work as a celebration of that special bond between man, woman, and dog monster.

In Maria Popova’s Mary Oliver on What Dogs Teach Us About the Meaning of Our Human Lives she notes:

“[It] collects her most soul-stirring poems and short prose celebrating that special human-canine relationship and what it reveals about the meaning of our own lives — a beautiful manifestation of Oliver’s singular sieve for extracting from the particularities of the poetic subject the philosophical universalities of the human condition to illuminate what it means to live a good life, a full life, a life of purpose and presence.”

Like us now, she highlights some of the poems. And we’ll begin with the same as Popova, as this is a woofing marvellous number on page 19.


I had a dog
who loved flowers.
Briskly she went
through the fields,

yet paused
for the honeysuckle
or the rose,
her dark head,

and her wet nose
the face
of every one

with its petals
of silk,
with its fragrance

into the air
where the bees,
their bodies
heavy with pollen,

and easily
she adored
every blossom,

not in the serious,
careful way
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—

the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way

we long to be—
that happy
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.

There are 35 poems in Dog Songs, plus an essay. Many of these delve into the more humourous side of owning a dog, such as THE DOG HAS RUN OFF AGAIN (BENJAMIN).

It makes us think of JESUS CHRIST IN RICHMOND PARK and Fenton the dog.

And that’s what it is with dogs. That moment of gleeful self-absorption to hurtle after a herd of deer, causing it to stampede, leaving an exasperated owner in their wake.

Despite these bizarre flaws and disobedience, it’s impossible not to love dogs.


Our new dog, named for the beloved poet, ate a book which unfortunately we have left unguarded.

Fortunately it was the Bhagavad Gita,
of which many copies are available.
Every day now, as Percy grows
into the beauty of his life, we touch
his wild, curly head and say,

“Oh, wisest of little dogs.”

Plus, the manic sensory joys of dogs. That childlike, seemingly idiotic enthusiasm for every, single, bloody situation they encounter.

It’s a world of olfactory delights we don’t get to enjoy as humans, having smell abilities pathetic in comparison to these beasts, but we can learn a thing or two from their antics.


Now through the white orchard my little dog
romps, breaking the new snow
with wild feet.

Running here running there, excited,
hardly able to stop, he leaps, he spins
until the white snow is written upon in large, exuberant letters,
a long sentence, expressing
the pleasures of the body in this world.

Oh, I could not have said it better

Dog Songs is a fantastic little book of poetry. No denying that.

Dog enthusiast? Then this is for you, as you’ll revel in the collective joys of four-legged fiends and all they accomplish in their markedly brief lives.

Mary Oliver’s Essay: Dog Talk

Oliver’s dog Percy features throughout many of the poems, although the beast had a brief life from 2002-2009. Of this she notes:

“And it is exceedingly short, his galloping life. Dogs die so soon. I have my stories of that grief, no doubt many of you do also. It is almost a failure of will, a failure of love, to let them grow old—or so it feels.”

That sad sentiment aside, this is a very life-affirming and positive account of the many idiosyncrasies these animals have.

It makes for a fine accompaniment to Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which features a dog (Roger) very prominently. Plus, many other creatures. In Dog Talk it’s much the same, with Oliver picking up this:

“Other quirks and mannerisms, frights and anxieties, Ben brought with him, and has kept. Mostly he wants reasonable things—quiet, security, both M. and me within sight. He is frightened of lightning, brooms, kindling, backfire, and trucks generally. He loves fields, freedom, rabbit-smell, rides in the car, lots of food. I think he can drink a gallon of water at a single stint. I think he can run for eight hours without halt.”

Truth is, we love dogs for their loyalty—you’re unlikely to encounter a human who’ll be willing to foul themselves in excitement simply because you’ve returned home after 60 minutes absence.

Dog Songs captures that fleeting glee, played out over a decade or so, magnificently. It’s all an ode to life and the time we spend on Earth, which if you share with dogs (or other animals) makes it all the more enjoyable.

Dispense with some gibberish!

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