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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 5 > Looking at Animals: Creative writing as preservation in animal poetry
Looking at Animals: Creative writing as preservation in animal poetry
Author: Geraldine Bell
Geraldine Bell surveys influences and edicts when writing about animals in her poetry.


Animals continue to provide a stimulus and subject for poets around the world. This is despite John Berger’s claim in 1980 that we can no longer look at animals in any meaningful way because of the marginalization wrought upon all non-human species by capitalism. Philip Larkin’s notion that all art has a desire to “preserve” provides an interesting counterpoint to Berger’s essay when we consider if the presentation is effective, lasting, or simply a futile attempt to represent a “disappear[ing]” species. This article will also ask whether it is the animal itself, or the literary experience that is being preserved for posterity. Drawing on anthologies of animal verse published in the last century, and taking into account W. H. Auden’s categories of animal poems from 1962, this essay considers how the act of looking at animals figures in modern poetry. I will also reflect on how these writings have influenced my own poems. I discuss the variety of ways in which the human gaze operates in animal poetry, and how this contributes towards a process of preservation of animals, whether caged, free, or fictional.


Keywords: animal poetry, creative writing, critical reflection, poetry anthologies, ecopoetics, wildlife conservation


“I think that the impulse to preserve lies at the bottom of all art.”

          —Philip Larkin (Herbert and Hollis 2000: 150)


In 1980, John Berger stated bluntly that “Everywhere animals disappear” (26). He contended that when humans observe animals, the creatures are unable to return the gaze because of the fundamental change wrought in human-animal relations by capitalist society. Eighteen years later, Randy Malamud’s Reading Zoos (1998) followed in the same vein, asserting “zoos convince people that we are the imperial species — that we are entitled to trap animals, remove them from their worlds and imprison them within ours” (2). This imprisonment allows us to look without restraint, but Berger and Malamud argue that when we observe animals in zoos, we are not gaining a genuine insight into their lives and habits. Instead we are only seeing mediated reproductions that cannot teach us anything real about animals. Malumud reiterates Boyce Rensberger’s statement that “an animal in a zoo is not a whole animal” (1977: 258). These critics condemn any engagement between animals in captivity and their human spectators as false and misleading. 

The supposed impossibility of seeing animals in the 21st century presents a problem for creative authors who want to write something meaningful about their observations of the natural world. While Berger offers no alternative or redemptive ways of engaging with animals, Malamud in several places discusses literature and poetry as means of authentically learning about the animal kingdom. He cites the writings of Virginia Woolf and John Galsworthy as that which “can probably teach us more about people and animals – and can certainly teach us differently – than zoos” (1998: 39). Malamud overlooks the irony that in order to write about animals, Galsworthy and Woolf had to patronize the zoo, as he records they did frequently (1998: 23). Later, Malamud heralds Marianne Moore as a poet who did not feel the need to “appropriat[e]” (1998: 340) her subjects in a colonialist manner, as Malamud implies zoos do (324), but instead sourced her poetic subject matters from printed records: books, magazines, and the like (324). Although Malamud’s alternatives are somewhat shortsighted, his purpose is to find ways in which we can preserve the rights and dignity of animals and learn from them by means that do not cause them harm.

The fear behind Malamud’s thesis is that animals will somehow be lost whilst still in existence – or rather, any meaningful interaction with them will be impossible. Taking these ideas into account, Larkin’s axiom about the “impulse to preserve” becomes particularly pertinent in relation to poetry concerning animals. He expanded on this idea in an interview with the Paris Review (1982), saying, “If you rationalize it, it seems as if you’ve seen this sight, felt this feeling, had this vision, and have got to find a combination of words that will preserve it by setting it off in other people.” Berger argues that all animal observation represents a futile attempt to record their irretrievable presence (Berger 1980: 28). However, it seems that creative writers have overwhelmingly taken up the challenge of finding the right formula that will accurately convey this “sight” or “feeling” to others, with or without the knowledge of Larkin’s précis (or Berger’s dictum). Poetry concerning animals occupies a huge swathe of canonical (and non-canonical) verse in all languages.[1] No-one has persuasively argued that the popularity of this topic has abated since the 19th century, which Berger demarcates as the beginning of modern capitalism (3). It seems that the compulsion to record our knowledge of or interaction with animals, captive or otherwise, continues unchecked.

W.H. Auden’s categories of animal writings (not limited to poetry) are all based on human-animal interaction (1962: 301–3). Whether an animal is employed as a simile or an emblem, in Auden’s categories, the significance of animal writing comes from how effectively it comments on the human condition. Likewise, the introductory remarks that preface animal poetry anthologies often stress that the power of animal analogies lies in their ability to reflect human nature. George MacBeth says that “All good poems about animals are about something else as well” in his introduction to The Penguin Book of Animal Verse (1965: 7). Paul Muldoon suggests in his preface to The Faber Book of Beasts that the wider repercussions of animal verse reflect “ourselves ... for who and what we are” (1997: xvii). Some, like Mullan and Marvin, would argue that in a capitalist age, we are crafting animals to “merely reflect ... [our] own concerns” (1987: 3). However, MacBeth (9–10) and Hollander (1994: 13) have both mapped out the ways in which animal poems have been inextricably connected with our understanding of human nature since medieval times. MacBeth points to the “use of individual emotion” as being a particularly “modern trait” (10),[2] and that is reflected in the examples of animal poems from the 20th century that I will discuss here. In this essay I will critique how the observation of animals functions in poems by Matthew Siegel, James Wright, W. H. Auden, Don Marquis, and C. K. Williams. I will also consider what kind of “feeling” or image the poets are preserving by representing the “vision” to their readers, to use Larkin’s phrasing. The poems here recognize and refresh the conventions of the genre through truly creative writing.

My primary examples use free verse, which I have frequently employed in my poetry. A free verse poem which plays with the conventions of the “beast fable” (Auden’s first category of animal writing) is Matthew Siegel’s “fox goes to the fox hospital” (2015: 3). Auden describes the beast fable as a tale in which “the actors have animals’ bodies but human consciousness” (1962: 300). Siegel invites us to believe that he is employing anthropomorphism in this manner, setting up a species-specific, self-contained world with his title. The opening line invites us to “look” and watch the figure in the present tense: “there he is back in the hospital.” The narration moves imperceptibly from an outsider watching the fox to the inner feelings of the character, stating “In the gown he feels naked,” “really he wishes he could draw a comic.” While we believe the narrator to be talking about a fox, even a sentient fox with anthropomorphic qualities, the tone of the poem seems fanciful, with the “blue dressing gown” and “delicate floral print on the walls” accessorizing the miniature scene with winsome details. According to Auden’s definition, we read the beast fable with “detachment” and recognize in it “sensible or foolish behaviour” (1962: 300). Thus in Siegel’s poem the reader should be expecting an “educative” or at least “amusing” pay-off from the depiction of an animal body paired with a human mind (1962: 300). But Siegel upsets our reading of the poem by turning our gaze towards the act of writing:

He’s writing a poem called ‘going back to the hospital’
but really he wishes he could draw a comic
featuring a small mammal version of himself.
His animal would be a fox, he decides, and promptly
changes the title to ‘fox goes to the fox hospital.’ (Siegel 2015:3)

The animal mask is whipped off and revealed to be a façade, just as the hospital gown is described as “an old costume.” In finishing the poem on the execution of the title, Siegel short-circuits any further development of the fox-as-man character, and we are forced to reassess our interpretation of the events in the poem. The details of the hospital that seemed quaint before now become the set dressing for a human drama of medical procedures. The confessions that playfully transposed self-awareness onto a wild animal now become the bleak reveries of a soft-skinned mammal who needs more than fur or hide for protection. The means by which the narrator has identified themselves, for example as a sexual being, a writer, one with “an affinity for flowers,” become more reasonable as human characteristics, and the discombobulating sense of trying to fit them to a fox is terminated. The unmasking of the narrator as man and not animal exposes how we categorize and compute experiences according to what species is undertaking them. This is a mock beast-fable that tricks us into reading the text with expectations that are then undermined when the identity of the poetic voice changes.

At the start of the poem, our gaze is diverted away from the real point of vulnerability to the animal mask. This mask is being used as a tool for self-preservation, as the narrator feels “diminished,” and is able to avoid confronting his own weakness by avoiding “the first person ‘I’.” The poet’s words amount to a misdirection, but in a broader sense, the poet is using his words to ensure that he lives on in literature. To use Larkin’s phrasing, the “vision” that the poet is “setting off” in the reader is misleading, but the image is intended to outlive the human author. The narrator’s nomination of the fox as “His animal” is a telling one, invoking the literary heritage of the sly and cunning trickster who is always hiding more than he is willing to admit. The fox and the poet are kindred spirits.

Auden designates as a separate category poems concerning a “romantic encounter between man and beast,” in which “the animal provides an accidental stimulus to the thoughts and emotions of a human individual” (1962: 302). In James Wright’s poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” (1971: 114), the poet observes the gentle movement of animals all around him: “Over my head,” “Down the ravine,” “To my right.” Their movements are not urgent or industrious; a butterfly is “Asleep” and fluttering in the breeze, cowbells clink “Into the distances of the afternoon,” a bird “floats over.” In the poet’s bucolic view of the farm, even “The droppings of last year’s horses” are framed like artworks “between two pines,” lit by “sunlight” until they “Blaze up into golden stones.” The proverbial becomes precious, as if the farm had its own form of alchemy. The title sets the location as “William Duffy’s Farm,” yet there are scarce signs of human habitation or industry. An “empty house” stands atop the ravine, and the cows are fitted with bells, but no-one is busy herding them (or sending them to the abattoir). The butterfly and bird are free to roam. This extended period of reflection is demarcated by the time change from “the afternoon” to the darker “evening.”

Yet the poet has not reached the apex of inner peace in this scene of rural contentment. Instead something in these observations stirs the poet to conclude with grim conviction, “I have wasted my life.” The change in tone as the poet delivers their emotive verdict on the scene is striking and distinguishes the poem from its 19th century forerunners. Wright does not “show his working” by demonstrating how the first part of the poem caused the conclusion. As an example for comparison, Wordsworth’s “To the Cuckoo” (Mason 1940: 77–8) labours longer over the connection between the mysterious song of the invisible cuckoo and the thoughts it inspires. He hears the birdsong now as he once heard it “in [his] school-boy days.” In order to recapture “that golden time again,” the poet vows to “lie upon the plain / And listen.” In doing thus, he will invoke the adventurous period of his youth when the cuckoo was still “a hope, a love.” Throughout eight stanzas, Wordsworth marks a clear trajectory from hearing the sound, recording the memories it provokes, and stating his intended actions in order to “beget” again the innocence of childhood. In cutting out the exegesis between the observation and conclusion, Wright’s stark judgment is delivered with much more force, undercutting our generic expectations and leaving a blank where we expect to find the poet’s reasoning.

The act of looking in both poems stirs an appreciation of the organic beauty and natural instincts of the animals that surround the speakers. In Wright’s poem the butterfly is nestling upon the “black trunk,” the cows are looking for further pasture, the bird is poignantly “looking for home.” In Wordsworth, the cuckoo is keeping its location a “mystery,” “invisible” from predators. The inception of both poems is an engagement with the animal kingdom: Wordsworth says “I hear,” Wright says “I see.” In both poems the observations of the poet provoke longing; in Wordsworth a nostalgia, in Wright a deep and evocative regret. For Wordsworth, interacting with nature is about recovering the precious values of childhood and preserving them for posterity. In Wright’s poem, a moment of revelation has been preserved, like a fly trapped in amber, captured by the effective “combination of words” (Larkin 1982) and presented without the connection between observation and reflection made explicit. Both epiphanic moments sparked by animals have repercussions for the worldview of the human observers. The pattern of animal poetry laid out by MacBeth and Muldoon (above) persists: observations of animals in poetry are at their most satisfying and effective when they reflect the human reader.

Ironically, Auden’s own poem “Hunting Season” does not fit comfortably into any of his own categories of animal writing. It is anthologized in Muldoon’s The Faber Book of Beasts(1997: 123, and Auden 1994: 548-9), but I would argue that this is a poem primarily about humans that features animals as a counterpoint to human behaviour. Animals feature as the helpless victims of man’s imperial appetite to conquer and survive. Animals are not granted voices or distinct identities; instead they appear as “suffocated fish” or “a lifeless bundle” that, prior to being shot, was “Some feathered he-or-she.” The real subjects of these stanzas are the humans who appear as casual conquerors. After a day’s shooting, an “Example of our tribe” will enter the “kitchen,” “proud” of their kill. The poet’s phrasing suggests they find it slightly distasteful to belong to the same “tribe” as such a person; nonetheless, in a general taxonomy, the poet and hunter will be grouped together. The word “tribe” resounds with the echoes of early man, and the hunter-gatherer is contrasted with the intellectual “bard” of the third stanza who works for long hours in a stationary position to earn his sustenance. The hunter is active, travelling from “crag” to “kitchen” to bring home the meat. The bard is a passive player, “interrupted” at his “chair” in order to “Postpon[e] his dying with a dish.” Dying is inevitable for both man and beast, but whether actively or passively, man will require the deaths of many creatures over his lifetime in order to delay his own demise.

The way the sound of the death blow travels from “crag to crag,” “Down in the startled valley,” up to the isolated residence of the “interrupted bard” illustrates the far-reaching consequences of human actions. The death of one bird sets off a chain of events that are metonymic of the whole circle of life. The abcb rhyme scheme of the first four lines of each stanza mimics the “echoes” of the gun shot, as the sound of “trundle” reappears as “bundle,” “apart” as “heart” and so on. In between these opening and closing verses, Auden presents a third party disturbed by the “echoes” of the gunshot that starts the poem, a pair of “lovers” in the valley. The relationship of predator and prey is transposed onto the couple, who find their embrace shattered by suspicion and mistrust. The “He” divines a fairy tale “witch” ready to cook him alive, and the “She” senses the crosshairs of a “marksman taking aim.” Their misgivings about each other are described in highly gendered terms, each demonizing the other as powerful and malignant archetypes of their sex. Their primal fears about becoming the overpowered victim of the other’s schemes reflect God’s curse upon the first man and the first woman, when he tells them they will battle for supremacy: “I will put enmity between you and the woman ... Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:15, 16). The curse of “enmity” causes this anonymous, archetypal pair to “break” their bond. Similarly, just as the first sin necessitated the first death of any animal for human purposes, when “God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife” (Genesis 3:21), in “Hunting Season,” the killing of animals is juxtaposed with the power struggle between the sexes as the pattern of the hunt is replicated across several scenarios. Animals are observed in this poem, but as if through the dial of a viewfinder on a weapon. Man is the author of both their representations and their fate.

Auden’s poem begins with the observation of a bird’s death, but rather than focusing on the minute details of the scene, the fate of the prey is anonymized into a pattern that has been occurring since life began. The poet takes in a sweeping panorama to record his species-wide observations. The paradigm of predation, most commonly associated with the animal kingdom, is applied to inter-human relationships. It is as if the reader is looking through a window at animals, but finds the sheer surface reflects the shadow of the human viewer, overlapping with the animal’s silhouette. The preservation of animals here (and by logical extension, their repopulation as game) is necessary as life-sustaining nourishment. If the poem had to be categorized according to Auden’s own categories, it would most closely resemble the animal simile: “as an behaves so acted N” where is the name of a human (1962: 300). In this case, the narrator presents human behaviour and reminds us that animals also behave likewise. The paradigm Auden presents in his essay is reversed in his poem, but the correspondence is still established through a comparative framework. Animals are the foil that illuminates the human struggle to survive.

In a poem of my own composition, “Robinson Crusoe,” (Bell 2018: 58) I also used animal behaviour to reflect back upon man’s imperial tendencies. The idea came from the juxtaposition in Daniel Defoe’s novel between the almost idyllic rule of Crusoe as the sole occupant of the island, and the white man’s impulse to set himself above all subsequent visitors, particularly Friday. Crusoe summarizes his position (before Friday arrives) thus:

It would have made a Stoick smile to have seen me and my little family sit down to dinner; there was my majesty the prince and lord of the whole island; I had the lives of all my subjects at my absolute command. I could hang, draw, give liberty, and take it away, and no rebels among all my subjects. (Defoe  2003: 118)

As in Wright’s poem, Defoe’s narrator has found animals to be the “stimulus” for his reflection (which Auden categorizes as a “romantic encounter”, 1962: 302). As lord of his parrot, dog, cats and goats, Crusoe seems to have found perfect contentment. He has achieved peace and mastery and subdued all the creatures in his domain, mainly because they have neither the wit nor the will to overthrow him. The scene is an oddly charming one, in which the animals have the run of an island, but stay in thrall to a master for their food. On the other hand, Crusoe’s assumption of the supremacy of the white man, particularly over the races he called “savage” (2003: 129), struck me as offensive and ignorant. It infuriated me to witness Friday’s willing abnegation of his freedom (and to be forced away from the father he had briefly been reunited with). To me, Crusoe was a slippery character. Defoe writes Crusoe as a lively and engaging raconteur, and he makes a winsome and often amusing narrator. However, his mores were so outdated and opposed to my own that I could not wholly trust or admire him.

In my poetic representation of this tableaux, I wanted to represent something of this uncertainty within the compressed style and spare tones of something like Auden’s “Hunting Season” or A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1924). The poem went through several stages of revision, because at first I wanted to bring in a duality to my representation of Crusoe’s subjects, hinting at the inhuman oppression of other races. I also wanted to retain the language of looking (as in their previous “observ[ing]”) as an allusion to Crusoe’s visual picture of himself as the island’s overlord, and the notion that his skin colour (that is, his appearance) set him apart from other men. The final stanza reads:

His poll can say ‘Crusoe, my liege’:
Imperial man’s noblesse oblige.
The cats like Master Robinson
But keep an eye upon his gun.

This stanza refers to the factors that sustain Crusoe’s position as master: his weapons and his rule of law; and it depicts the animals as both faithful and wary, just as the modern reader might follow Crusoe throughout the novel, but maintain a distance from his example.

My purpose in this poem was to explore the industry, ingenuity and complexity of Crusoe, the imperial man, in his relationship to the creatures in his kingdom. Commenting specifically on animals in captivity, Berger describes cages as “frames” as in a gallery, as if the animals were mimicked representations of real animals (1980: 23). In my poem Crusoe is at the centre of the frame, with the animals as supporting details, positioned lower on the canvas to reinforce Crusoe’s superiority. Berger’s concern is with the authenticity of the animals on display, but my poem is a distillation of an aspect of Defoe’s fictional character; it does not pretend to be a truthful account of natural history. My aim was to remain loyal to the source text and allude to the relationships of power depicted there. In Defoe, as in “Hunting Season”, the preservation of the animals, particularly the goats, is a necessity in a much more immediate way. My act of preservation is to record my reaction to Crusoe and his subjugation of the animals.

My poem “Freshly Mown Grass” (Bell 2018: 24) concerns one of the animals I am most readily able to engage with and observe – my pet dog. Auden describes this kind of poem as one where the “animals [are treated] as objects” by “an animal lover [who] happens also to be a poet” (1962: 302). The speaker is able to comment on the animal’s habits witnessed over a long period of time. As an example of this, I noticed that when my six-year-old Labrador was particularly excited, she started “tearing up chunks of the lawn,” as if she did not have any better way of expressing her pleasure than doing something mildly destructive. I observed that she chose to “rip out mouthfuls of turf” rather than chew on either her “bone” or “ball,” and I wanted to capture this unexpected act that seemed to have no logical return. But the event itself seemed inconsequential if I was not going to follow it up with some reflection on human nature, and partly I envied the dog’s unfettered joy, uninhibited by expectations of how she should react in her happiest mood. I deliberately employed a polysyllabic rhetoric (“And subsequently...”) in order to distance the poet’s voice as the logical human observer from the simplicity and spontaneity of the dog’s behaviour. In my last stanza, I compared my dog’s “enthusiasm” about her slimy old toys with my own material abundance, yet my most expensive possessions have never prompted me to tear “my pillow in two / And scatt[er] handfuls of feathers in celebration.” I chose to use “a MacBook and an iPhone” as examples to bring specificity and immediacy to the poem, even at the risk of the items dating the writing. The poem ends wistfully: “Perhaps if I recognized my own good fortune / I’d understand the compulsion.”

In writing this reflective conclusion, I had in mind the tone of Don Marquis’s poem “Lesson of the Moth,” published under the pseudonym of his character “archy,” a cockroach (1990: 107–8).[3] In both poems the narrator is positioned as the reasonable stoic. Archy points out that the moth’s flirtation with “an electric light bulb” is dangerous; had it been a naked flame, he says, “you would / now be a small unsightly cinder / have you no sense.” Where I refrained from giving my carefree pet a speaking voice, Don Marquis gives the moth a long, rhapsodic response in which he philosophizes,

it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while (1990: 107–8)

Although Archy maintains his enlightened position after the moth “immolate[s] himself” on a lighter, there is a tinge of bittersweet envy in his closing comment that “i wish / there was something i wanted / as badly as he wanted to fry himself.” In the attitude of both narrators, there is an admission that in maintaining a position of reason and logic, perhaps one is missing out on a sense of euphoria that is only known by those who live for the moment.

In both poems, the poetic voice is initiated by the humans observing a creature doing something they consider ill-advised. Both voices have a tone of unpremeditated reflection, as if the thought has just occurred to them. This belies the action of executing and editing a poem, of course, but the overall effect is of insight gained into one’s rationale in comparison with an animal’s. Archy is a cockroach, but as in Auden’s animal fable, he is depicted with the sentient mind of a human (1962: 302). Originally published in the 1920s as a newspaper column, Don Marquis’s poem addresses the moth’s hedonism and its destructive end. My poem highlights the material wealth of a millennial generation, juxtaposed with the persistent sense of dissatisfaction. Both insights are engineered by comparison with psyches of the animals observed. Don Marquis’s moth prefers the momentary bliss of beauty to the drawn out monotony of banality, or in other words, immediate pleasure over long-term preservation. In my case, as a creative writer, I wanted to capture an everyday moment with my dog that represented something spontaneous, joyful, and therefore beautiful. In Auden’s comments on “animals as objects” in poetry, he states that D.H. Lawrence’s poems use this trope to contrast “the virtue of a beast with the vices and follies of man” (1962: 303). My endeavor to make this poem “about something else as well” (MacBeth 1965: 7) meant that I used the animal comparison to highlight the carefree, carpe diem attitude of my dog in contrast to my own. As with other previous examples, mere observation of the event was not sufficient to warrant preservation in poetic form. The incident needed to have wider applications for human reflection.

Another dog poem also recalls a specific event which echoes beyond its context, considering freedom from bondage and societal change. In “The Dog,” C.K. Williams uses sensory, at times visceral images to depict the suffering of a defecating dog and his “selfish” owner (2006: 162–3). Situated in the era of “civil rights,” the poet is drawn to the situation because he feels compelled to challenge what he witnesses. At first his involvement is casual; he “overlook[s]” the land where this daily ritual takes place. But the “almost human” cry of the dog makes “trouble” for the poet because then he “had to know about it.” The excreting dog is described in the language of slavery. The narrator recalls how the owner held the “leash coiled in her hand” while the dog “laboured away” beneath her. The dog “shrieked,” “keen[ed]” and “scream[ed],” “as though someone were at him with a club.” He is forced to “dance” and “lurch” while “grinning” like a minstrel, creating a spectacle in order to complete his humiliating task. The dog looks pleadingly at his owner, begging her to have mercy on him and “let him die,” as the poet proposes. The stern, unyielding attitude of the owner takes form through the description of her body: she is “busty, chunky,” with a solidity that the “rib and knob, gristle and grizzle” emaciation of the dog cannot hope to overpower. Whereas the woman’s “breasts ... like stone” are unmoved, the pitiful dog tries to rid himself of the “feeble, mucus-coated, blood-flecked chains,” more liquid than solid. The owner seemingly refuses to acknowledge the dog’s “anguish,” determinedly looking the other way, “apparently oblivious.”

The language of substance also illustrates the dynamic between the poet and the dog owner. The woman is “very black”, and the superlative establishes an ‘otherness’ that the poet refers to in passing as “the race thing.” Her statuesque figure exudes a “stiff, exotic dignity” that corroborates her foreignness whilst also arousing the poet’s desire. However, when his sense of justice eventually compels him to broach the divide in order to challenge her, he sees her vulnerability. He finds “her flesh was loosening”; there are pouches of fat” beneath her eyes. The dog is ill and needy, but she also turns out to be “older” and “poorer” than the poet had previously realized. There is no record of the woman’s response to the poet’s accusations of “selfish[ness],” as she is not endowed with a voice in this narrative. The hierarchy that exists between the owner and the dog is transferred to the poet and the owner. This is emphasized as the poet recoils from his previous attraction, asking, “Had I ever really mooned for such a creature?” Confronted by his position as her social better, the poet takes on the dog’s shame. He recalls how he “slunk” away “around the block” with his tail between his legs.

The scene of the suffering dog is depicted in vividly visual terms. The process of looking and recording is bookended by the poet’s wider observations of the landscape of contemporary society. At the start the poet notes with a touch of liberal pride that “the neighborhood I was living in was mixed.” The “beatniks and young artists” had rejected a comfortable existence and sought authenticity in the “slums.” But in the final third of the poem, the narrator no longer speaks with nostalgic fondness of the “narrow streets” and the little houses nicknamed “father-son-holy-ghosts.” Instead he considers the neighbourhood “bleak”; “the general sense of dereliction” is now distasteful to his older palette. Time and age have ushered in a new apathy towards addressing social issues. Now he cannot “recall” what became of the woman and her dog. Ruth Padel describes how the arc of the poem tracks “trying to do something about [suffering], but in the end allowing your own concerns to take priority” (2007). The poet has achieved his goal by finding “a girl to be in love with.” He and the girl “wanted ... to live together, so we did.” His route out of the degradation has been very straight-forward. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the isolated “tenements” and “enclaves” have been squeezed out of the picture. New wealth has brought gentrification to the neighbourhood. The houses are smart with “ivy” and “pointed brick.” The spikiness of the old bare “ginkgo” trees has been replaced with aggressive and hostile shards of “broken bottles, mortared” on boundary walls. The sturdy homes are built to last now that the inhabitants are considered worth protecting.

The poet records how the dog, trapped in a cycle of suffering, was let down by both its owner and the sympathetic onlooker. The poem uses the animal as an “allegorical emblem” that becomes clear in the context of the poem (Auden 1962: 302), and Padel corroborates this by describing the dog as “an image for all suffering” (2007). Williams’ attitude reflects the troubling duty of bystanders who fail to challenge oppression when they witness it. The poet feels embarrassed about his abortive confrontation with the dog’s owner, but his conscience is not troubled by the marginalization of his deprived neighbours. His youthful efforts to support racial integration are gradually abandoned as he seeks the comforts of a more mainstream lifestyle. The “complicat[ions]” and “tensions” of adult life become “so many” that compassion for others is superseded by his own problems. The presentation of the animal’s distress in the poem is a warning against neglect, apathy, and oppression in all its forms. In “The Dog” Williams has recorded a moment in suburban American history that continues to feel relevant and discomfiting.

MacBeth closes his introduction to The Penguin Book of Animal Verse by saying that a variety of approaches are “valid,” but the “one proviso is that each should hold the animal kingdom firmly in view” (my italics, 1965: 11). In these examples, creative writing about animals begins with a sensory observation or engagement, whether physically or through the medium of research. Behind the discussions about what it means to look at animals is a question about how we can effectively interact with different species in a meaningful way. My own intention is to present something truthful in my depiction of animals. The “impulse to preserve” (Larkin 1982) operates together with my belief in intelligent design. Thus, in the process of writing, the conflicts and choices that arise are negotiated through my desire to affirm God’s artistry in the complexity and variety of creation, and the often difficult dynamic between humans and animals.

In the examples I have discussed, these poets have used their observations of animals to enable more complex types of preservation. Matthew Siegel flips the roles of the human and the fox in his inverted beast fable and uses a mask as a tool for self-preservation. Wright portrays a reflective moment that appears on first glance to have much in common with Lyrical Ballads, but distills from it a declaration of futility. Auden applies an animal cycle of predation (and preservation by repopulation) to human relationships, and in doing so highlights our most primal fears. Marquis equips two arthropods with sophisticated human voices in order to weigh up the benefits of living hedonistically, as opposed to preserving life for as long as possible. Williams uses his scene of animal suffering to illustrate wider concerns about social inequality and adult apathy. Most of these poems do not sit purely in one of Auden’s ‘writing about animals’ categories, but combine ideas and tropes from several. Auden and Siegel play with the popular types of animal poetry most explicitly, keeping the genre fresh and innovative. Williams, Marquis, and Wright are highly effective in their timeless depictions of the human condition, told through the lens of animal observations. Despite Berger’s influential essay, the act of looking evidently remains at the heart of creative writing about animals.  


[1] For example, a selection from the last ten years includes Borodale, S. (2012) Bee Journal. London: Jonathan Cape; Nelson, D., et al (eds.) (2004) Birds in the Hand: Fiction and Poetry about Birds. New York: North Point Press; Collins, B. (ed) and Sibley, D. A. (ill.) (2009) Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds. Columbia University Press; Kingsley, N. (ed) (2018) Diversifly: Poetry and Art on Britain's Urban Birds. Oswestry: Fair Acre Press; Fragos, E. (ed) (2005) The Great Cat: Poems about Cats. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Ciuraru, C. (ed) (2009) Poems about Horses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; Armitage, S., et al (eds.) (2011) The Poetry of Birds. London: Penguin; Greer, C. E., et al (eds.) (2007) Say This of Horses: A Selection of Poems. University of Iowa Press; Strauss, L., et al (eds.) and Wright, E. (ill.) (2018) Some Cannot Be Caught: The Emma Press Book of Beasts. Birmingham: The Emma Press; Oswald, A. (ed) (2015) A Ted Hughes Bestiary. London: Faber. I have not included the anthologies I have listed in my bibliography or anthologies specifically for children.      

[2] As opposed to what MacBeth categorizes as the “moral” and “neutral” (1965: 11) animal poetry of the 18th century and medieval periods, respectively. See pages 9–11 of his introduction for a full explanation. 

[3] Although there are significant differences between the two poems, particularly in punctuation, it was important to me to credit the similarity in tone. I did this by including the epigraph “After Don Marquis.” 



Extracts from W.H. Auden (1994) reprinted courtesy of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

Matthew Siegel, Blood Work © 2015 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, reprinted courtesy of The University of Wisconsin Press.

C.K. Williams extracts © 2006 reprinted courtesy of Bloodaxe Books.

Extracts from James Wright, Collected Poems © 1971 published by Wesleyan University Press and used by permission.



Auden, W.H. (1962) “Two Bestiaries” in The Dyer’s Hand and other essaysLondon: Faber.

Auden, W.H. (1994) Collected Poems (ed. E. Mendelson), London: Faber.

Bell, G.J.M. (2018) Inky Creatures: A Portfolio of Poems with a Critical Commentary. PhD Thesis: University of Leicester.

Berger, J. ([1980] 1991) “Why Look at Animals?” in Berger, J., About Looking. New York and Toronto: Vintage and Random House.

Defoe, D. ([1719] 2003) Robinson Crusoe (ed.J. Richetti), London: Penguin.

Hollander, J. (1994) Animal Poems. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Holy Bible, New International Version (1973) Biblica Inc. Available from: [Accessed 29 May 2018].

Housman, A. E. ([1924] 1990) A Shropshire Lad. New York, NY: Dover.

Larkin, P. (2000) “Statement” in Herbert, W.N. and Hollis, M. (eds) Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books.

Larkin, P. (1982) “The Art of Poetry, No. 30”, Interview with Robert Phillips. Paris Review 84. Available from: [Accessed 29 May 2018].

MacBeth, G. (1965) The Penguin Book of Animal Verse. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Marquis, D. ([1927] 1990) archy and mehitabel. New York, NY: Anchor Books

Malamud, R. (1998) Reading Zoos: Representations of Animals in Captivity. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Mason, K. (1940) An Anthology of Animal Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Muldoon, P. (1997) The Faber Book of Beasts. London: Faber.

Mullan, B. and Marvin, G. (1987) Zoo Culture. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Padel, R. (2007) “About The Dog”, Scottish Poetry Library. Available from: [Accessed 29 May 2018].

Rensberger, B. (1977) The Cult of the Wild. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Siegel, M. (2015) Blood Work. London: CB editions.

Williams, C.K. (2006) Collected Poems. Highgreen: Bloodaxe.

Wright, J. ([1963] 1971) Collected Poems. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.



Baker, S. (1993) Picturing the Beast: Animals, Identity and Representation. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Burt, J. (2005) “John Berger’s ‘Why Look at Animals?’: A Close Reading”. Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture and Ecology, 9 (2), 203–18.

Ciuraru, C. (2003) Doggerel: Poems About Dogs. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

The Nation’s Favourite Animal Poems (2001) London: BBC.

Welsch, J.T. (2015) “‘Critical Approaches to Creative Writing’: A Case Study”. 

Writing in Practice, 1. Available from: [Accessed 29 May 2018]. 


Geraldine Bell completed her PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Her research interests include poets who have illustrated their own poetry for an adult readership, and a variety of aspects arising from animal poetry. Her poetry has been published in Ambit, Brittle Star and Dream Catcher.