Mary Oliver’s Canine Imagery
I dove into Mary Oliver’s poetry because it seems accessible, and honestly because she is so well known that I thought it would be fairly easy for you, dear readers, to access her work.
I read Swan and A Thousand Mornings.
I enjoyed them. They are mostly concerned with her surroundings, so you will probably like the images in nature that you read about.
She also seems to have motifs that continue from one book into the next, most noticeably about her dog, Percy, so I have marked one of those to share with you.
Notes on reading:
I recommend that you read the poem through first and then think about it on your own.
The comments that follow are my thoughts about it, written without any other research. I started with language and style without much comment on my interpretation so that you could go back and take another look on your own before reading my ideas.
Remember, there are really no wrong ideas in literature and especially poetry. Good poetry should evoke a range of emotional responses.
Percy Wakes Me (Fourteen)
Percy wakes me and I am not ready…
He has slept all night under the covers.
Now he’s eager for action: a walk, then breakfast….
So I hasten up. He is sitting on the kitchen counter
Where he is not supposed to be.
How wonderful you are, I say. How clever, if you
to wake me.
He thought he would hear a lecture and deeply
his eyes begin to shine.
He tumbles onto the couch for more compliments.
He squirms and squeals; he has done something
that he needed
and now he hears that it’s okay.
I scratch his ears, I turn him over
and touch him everywhere. He is
wild with the okayness of it. Then we walk, then
he has breakfast, and he is happy.
This is a poem about Percy.
This is a poem about more than Percy.
Think about it.
Thoughts from The Lois Level:
When I first read this poem, I wanted to roll my eyes. Cats, I thought. They are going to do what they want to do, and they always feel it is a need. Oh, except this poem is about a dog.
Why did I think it was about a cat? I guess because he jumps up on the counter, and my dog doesn’t do that. That’s called schema, and mistakes like that have caused many a child to be labelled with an intellectual problem.
I didn’t find out it was a dog until I started researching it.
When I read this poem, what I notice about the language and the style is that the center of the poem flows with longer sentences and softer sounds, yet you notice different ideas because the lines are broken up. I’m guessing she wants you to notice her points at the beginning and the end because the sentences are shorter and also the sounds are a bit harder although not too hard: you have lots of “b” and “p” sounds. She also begins each of the last three sentences similarly and with the “the” sound.
I like the imagery of this poem in the middle so that we really don’t see Percy as much as we feel his movements: “he tumbles…he squirms and squeals”.
I suppose we all need self-validation, but of course I would be very annoyed if my dog had knowingly gotten me out of bed and then jumped up on the counter. That I don’t buy. Of course, I do believe a dog would at least act sorry, when a cat would not.
What is ok for me about having pets though, is even though they may not have the emotions we humans like to give them, what they do is give us routine and perhaps affection…that we need to give. I suppose that is is also important to be able to ask for what we want, and know that those we rely on will give it to is…even when we are a little bad!
Anyway, that’s the best that I can do for Percy. You tell me what I missed.
For more poetry from The Lois Level, check the category A Poem with your Coffee
Many of Mary Oliver’s poems are set in and around her long time home in Provincetown, MA. This photo was selected, taken by a river, shows the variety found in nature and also evokes a feeling of American Primitive art.
A Selection of Mary Oliver’s Books
One reason I selected Mary Oliver’s poetry as a post topic is because she is so well known that her work is easier to find in libraries than some other poets.
There is a lot to be said for reading poetry in texts originally put together by the poet. The juxtaposition of the selected poems against each other is part of the artistry.
These are the books I read:
Swan: Poems and Prose Poems
“Prose poems” are written in paragraph form rather than poetic stanzas, but they do not tell a story. They are more about evoking an image or a feeling.
A Thousand Mornings: Poems
Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive.
New and Selected Poems won the National Book Award.
If you are in this for the dogs, Oliver has a whole book of dog poems, Dog Songs.
And her collections of essays, if you prefer prose or like to know more about authors.
During Oliver’s late teens, she helped organize Millay’s poetry after Millay’s death.
This excellent article from Book Riot gives you a nice sampler of Oliver’s poetry.