Jun 4, 2013


Robert Bly’s “The Resemblance between Your Life and a Dog” might, in its accessibility, make Billy Collins and others proud. That is not a criticism; there are various ways for a poem to make an impact, to have staying power. Poems that wear everyday clothing might entice more people to stroll along with them, and during those casual walks, some surprising turns can happen, events that are more challenging and magical than first glances indicate.

Ovenbird? Thrush?

Comparing a human life to a stray dog—not just the cliché of a dog’s life, but the dog itself—probably qualifies as a poetic “conceit”—a metaphor or simile that is extremely far-fetched. In any case, Bly establishes his conceit immediately, and I was interested to follow his opening surprise. How does that wagging coexist with the life he “never intended to have?” Where will he go with this mutt that cannot articulate much, but wags—not just its tail, it seems, but its whole self?

The answers, both literal and richly connotative, are:  a boy’s bedroom mirror, a clear river,
mountain wind, a sparrow in winter (which somehow ends up in the same poetic line as the boy’s teachers—explain that), and finally, a return to the stray dog, which is not exactly the lovable pooch of cliché country, but a dog that “Doesn’t particularly like you.”

Winter Sparrow

Yet you must live with him, and vice versa, wondering all the while who owns whom. Especially for those who don’t like poems with bookends, I’ll argue that that’s a remarkable and wonderful circling back to the opening line:  “I never intended to have this life.”

Whether we inhabit a life or it inhabits us, and how much control we have over our lives—those questions crop up periodically (or is it daily?).  Maybe they are merely new phrasings about fatalism, destiny, and such, but Bly shakes it up in a more substantial way, I think. He offers this seemingly small, comfortable chat—dog, farm, wagging, sparrow, river, wind—until we realize we’re facing a big question: Who can say he intended to have this life? Who chose the life he’s had? Who among us can say confidently and honestly how he’d have reacted, at age ten or twenty, if he’d been told what lay ahead in his life? Even the most comfortable among us might have been stronger, waggier, than we’d ever have thought possible.


I’ve known a couple of people who confess that they read the last few pages of a novel before they start Page One. That’s always struck me as not merely odd, but wrongheaded, somewhere between eccentricity and neurosis. Then again, I’m the guy who rarely finishes novels, period.

Although Bly’s poem seems to be well known, I only stumbled across it for the first time this morning in an anthology I’ve long meant to recommend, though it’s a bit pricey (my used copy was $18 at Amazon):  Contemporary American Poetry, eds. A. Poulin, Jr. and Michael Waters. The contents vary somewhat according to the edition; I’ve been very satisfied with the 6th and 8th editions.

By the way, after Bly’s poem, The Writer’s Almanac notes on the novelist Richard Ford are pretty interesting. I still haven’t gotten to Ford’s The Sportswriter; maybe this new bit of info will be the kick in the pants I need.


Hannah Stephenson said...

I've never seen this poem before--I love it!

I completely agree with you that this poem sounds accessible, yet takes us on weird, strange turns. That word, "deranged"--that's the first quick turn for me, a very unexpected word. And then the bit about the face thinking....weird! Wonderfully weird!

This is lovely--I will be bookmarking and returning to this poem. Robert Bly does some great things....

Banjo52 said...

Hannah, that's great. I'm with you about "deranged" and the face. I don't know how I've gotten away from Bly since the 80s--maybe all the Iron John biz? But now I intend to return to him.

Do you know the Poulin anthology? It's pretty fat and heavy for students, as well as expensive, but less so than science books! And it's a superb cross section of modern American poets.

Anonymous said...

You too -- git some, a dog, I mean.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I think I'm missing your DIM (deep inner meaning [courtesy of some former students]).

Stickup Artist said...

I suppose this articulates why good memories of lost times are so bittersweet. Or why, I personally, dislike thinking overlong about the past. I love the poem, but find it almost painful to linger...

Marveling at all the emerald green in the images. A color from my past...

WAS said...

It's probably just me, but it seems like this poem is a response to this (in my view, far superior) poem:


Free will vs. destiny, the age-old debate, between, it turns out, poets, as Stafford characterized it in "The Poets' Annual Indigence Report:"

"We do our jobs--listening in fear
in endless, friendless, Jesus-may-happen fashion

Our shadows ride over the grass, your shadows, ours:--
Rich men, wise men, be our contemporaries"

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Robert Bly and Iron John - Gawd noooo. why oh why did you have to ruin it for me? Just kidding. When I saw the name Blye, I wondered if was IJ. Fortunately I read the poem first before you let the 'dog' out of the bag. DIM

Anonymous said...

I mistook Bandit's comment on my blog for yours. Must be the paint fumes. I'll be back and leave something more reasonable.

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