It’s National Poetry Month. So I thought I might honor that in some way here on the blog. I considered writing a poem, but I’m really not a poet. Instead, I’m reprinting one of my favorite poems here:
The way the dog trots out the front door
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her dog house
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.
Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Ghandi with his staff and his holy diapers?
Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.
If only she did not shove the cat aside
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.
I love this poem because it gets to the heart of the very thing I love about my dog, that “life without encumbrance” that all dogs share. Dogs do not need material things, a hat or an umbrella, even though some silly owners embarrass their dogs by dressing them in raincoats and sweaters. I always think those dogs put up with it because they know it makes their owner happy. That’s what dogs are good at, making people happy. Whenever I’m feeling a little blue, when the full weight of my Seasonal Affected Disorder sets in, I know I need to head out the front door with my dog, Phoebe. I don’t always want to. On a day like today I’ll add layers of raingear and boots and reluctantly follow her high tail out the door. I might not end up singing in the rain, but I always feel a whole lot better after a healthy dose of wet air and movement. Just watching Phoebe’s antics along our neighborhood route is funny, the way she seeks out pinecones to toss into the air for the fun of it then noses it in my direction like a soccer pass. The way she watches me with her wide mouth grin urging me to give it a kick. Do it! You know you want to! It’s fun! And I can’t resist because it is fun. Would I behave this way if I were walking alone? Of course not.
Billy Collins knows that dogs are not models of self-containment or paragons of earthly detachment, but they are certainly more capable of being in the moment than any human being I know. Their moments are filled with joyful exuberance, acrobatic welcomes complete with sloppy kisses and whining. Of course it’s not all fun and games. Well, that’s the problem really, all they want is fun and games and sometimes we have to do things that are boring to dogs, when we ignore them. Like when I want to keep writing and Phoebe nudges me under the elbow — Hey lady! Enough of this! Time to go play! Or when I have to go to work or for a night out and I worry about leaving her alone for too long. But she never holds it against me, in fact, she’s even more excited to see me after I leave her for a long period of time. Dogs are the most marvelous role models. Their unconditional love is one of life’s true pleasures, even though we mere mortal humans are unworthy of being worshipped.
When I taught middle school language arts, I loved teaching poetry. Adolescents love poetry. Poetry is accessible and comes in so many iterations. Also, poems are short. Middle schoolers love that. And Poetry is the perfect form for expressing all their adolescent angst. In one of my favorite poetry lessons, I used the William Carlos Williams poem The Red Wheelbarrow. I would read the poem to my students:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
We’d talk about what they thought the poem meant, I’d tell them what some academics had to say about the poem’s meaning and then I’d ask them to write something similar, something that had meaning for them in the way that the red wheel barrow would for a farmer, for example. Oh how I wish I’d saved their poems. They were so beautiful. I learned so much about those kids and what was most important to them at that particular time. Poetry is powerful.
Which brings me back to National Poetry Month and my dog. It occurred to me that if Phoebe were capable of poetry, and composed a poem about our trips to the beach, she might write something like this:
So much depends
a fuzzy tennis ball
covered with sand
beside the gray water.
Happy Poetry Month!