Mary Oliver’s position as a female poet has long been questioned by critics. Some find her alliance with nature anti-feminist, claiming that her use of natural imagery echoes those of the male romantic poets. Sadly, romantic poetry is seen to assume the speaker-- presumed male--reaches an enlightened realm of immortality that the natural world-- coded female-- never can.
But other critics see more complexity in Oliver’s work, believing that the woman poet, in submerging herself entirely within the natural world, breaks the barrier between the individual and the planet; in doing so, she breaks the iconographic barrier between genders and places women in a position of power. And after reading some of Oliver’s Dog Songs, I’m inclined to agree that the writer succeeds in making work that empowers both the natural and the female.
The set of poems all feature dogs, a species much beloved by the poet; she writes of her canine companions with as much awe and reverence as she does other miraculous beasts and natural phenomena. They read as embodiments of the natural order, comprehending the cycle of life and death in ways no human can. While the human desperately clings to life, the dog doesn’t: in my favorite passage, she writes, “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.”
Her dogs, though domesticated, do often stand in for a more primitive, natural world. The “proper dog” in her poem “Slow Time” is the dog who runs about with natural, unruly hair and isn’t the show dog groomed to perfection by humans. But unlike in the work of other romantics, the natural world-- associated with the female in romantic poetry-- and the dog’s alliance with it are sources of vast knowledge and intellect, as “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.” Nature and therefore romantic definitions of womanhood are empowered and permanent, if not immortal, fixtures; like “rivers or the green or tender grass,” she cannot ever see living in a “world [...] without dogs.” And I couldn’t either. Dogs are some of our greatest inspirations for love, hope, and wisdom. Find more of her love poems for dogs here, and let us know what you think in the comments!