Dog Poems and Umwelt

Celebrating National Poetry Month Canine Style
By Karen B. London PhD, April 2015, Updated July 2016

It’s National Poetry month, and the goal since 1996 of this tradition is for people to see poetry all over the place. That means that people are placing poems in restrooms, on billboards, online and yes, even on dog collars.

The goal is for people to realize that poetry is everywhere, and part of that is understanding that the subjects of poetry are endless and anyone can write a poem. Of course, love is a prominent theme, as is the beauty of nature, but anything that interests a poet is a fair topic.

Naturally, many poets write about dogs, because they fall into the category of love, the beauty of nature and anything of interest to a poet. I particularly like one dog poem I discovered this month because it explores variation in perception.

It’s natural to assume that what we can sense is what’s out there, but each species has a very different view of “what’s out there.” Another way to say that is that every species has its own perceptual world, which is called the species’ Umwelt. That’s a German word that is most commonly translated as “subjective universe.” Jakob von Uexküll came up with this term in 1907 to describe the phenomenon of organisms having different sensory experiences (even if they live in the same environment) because of varying capabilities of perception.

The poem is by Lisel Mueller and is called What The Dog Perhaps Hears.

If an inaudible whistle

blown between our lips

can send him home to us,

then silence is perhaps

the sound of spiders breathing

and roots mining the earth;

it may be asparagus heaving,

headfirst, into the light

and the long brown sound

of cracked cups, when it happens.

We would like to ask the dog

if there is a continuous whir

because the child in the house

keeps growing, if the snake

really stretches full length

without a click and the sun

breaks through clouds without

a decibel of effort,

whether in autumn, when the trees

dry up their wells, there isn't a shudder

too high for us to hear.

 

What is it like up there

above the shut-off level

of our simple ears?

For us there was no birth cry,

the newborn bird is suddenly here,

the egg broken, the nest alive,

and we heard nothing when the world changed.

Do you have a favorite dog poem? Have you written canine poetry?

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photo by Zach Inglis/Flickr

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.