Poets Online Archive
Putting a Form to Death
February 2006

Though this prompt uses "Dog's Death" from John Updike's Collected Poems 1953-1993 (Knopf) as its model poem, I'm not sure this prompt is about dogs or death.

Updike is very well known for his many works of fiction, but is given far less attention for his poetry. Much of it is considered "light verse" in the Ogden Nash & Dorothy Parker school - but let's add Catullus, Pope and Jonson to this school's distinguished alumni. His most anthologized poem is probably "Ex-Basketball Player" but it's not the best representation of his poetry or what he has written in the half century since it was published.

"Dog's Death" is not a warm and fuzzy pet poem, and it doesn't have the wiser-than-human dog of a poem like Mark Doty's very popular "Golden Retrievals". It's not light verse.  It's somewhat formal with its five quatrains, irregular rhyme scheme, and 11-13 syllables meter. Perhaps form is a good way to approach a serious topic.

If we were in school and were asked to look for themes in his poem, we might say death, loss, dignity in facing death, the death of the young, the desire to be "good" or even the inability of love to triumph over death . Young students would probably quickly identify with the loss of a pet. I myself keep catching on the husband and wife - unaware of the puppy's injury, teasing her with play and ultimately probably hurting her further, dealing with their children and then discovering her dying when it was too late.  The key line for me is the realization that  "Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her / Nevertheless she sank". That love could not hold her up.

So what are we asking you to try this month? The six themes noted above are all legitimate, as well as this last one on love.  That's a wide road to follow, so to prevent your weaving too  far off the road, we will add some requirements of form.

Let's call this a form of the sonnet.  You must use quatrains (4 line stanzas) and you must use end rhyme. That rhyme may follow the typical English sonnet ( A B A B) or any variation (A A B B or A B C A or whatever)   Getting confused?  Look at the blog entry on form for this prompt for more explanation and samples.  The sonnet has 3 quatrains and ends with a couplet.  Your poem may have 1, 2 or 3 quatrains, but must have the couplet at the end.

Don't let the form distract or scare you away from writing. Billy Collins talks about how he likes the "little box" that the haiku form puts you into because it gives him some direction.

Join the discussion on this prompt at our blog


John Updike was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, and spent his first years in nearby Shillington, a small town where his father was a high school science teacher. The area has provided the setting for many of his stories, with the invented towns of Brewer and Olinger standing in for Reading and Shillington. 
He received a tuition scholarship to Harvard University, where he wrote stories and drew cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon humor magazine. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1954, and in that same year sold a poem and a short story to The New Yorker magazine.  Updike studied at Oxford's Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.
On returning from England, he took a position as a staff writer at The New Yorker and worked at the magazine for nearly two years, writing editorials, features and reviews. In 1957, he and his family moved to Ipswich, Massachusetts.
Though best known for his many novels and short stories, he has continually written poetry. Updike's first book of poetry, The Carpentered Hen and Other Tame Creatures, was published in 1958.  His Collected Poems 1953-1993 has been followed by Americana in 2001. Rabbit is Rich, published in 1981, received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and in 1991 he received a second Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit at Rest. He has published over 60 books, including novels, collections of short stories, poetry, drama, essays, memoirs and literary criticism.
The grandson of a Presbyterian minister, his writing in all genres has displayed a strong interest in philosophical questions.

Biographical information excerpted from http://www.achievement.org         Listen to Updike read his poetry


NINETEEN

Fold your hands over your chest.
Focus your chalky blue eyes
on whatever is straight ahead.
And now, childhood, say goodbye.

My silhouette walks through chilly rain
to mourn your passing alone.
The floral ground is tearstained.
There’s a rose on your headstone.

On a bed of Baby’s Breath
skips your ghost, barefoot and wild.
You smile through the haze of death,
the free and careless smile of a child.

Still, every spring, without fail
I smell Baby’s Breath on the air.

Olivia Olson


SHOOTING LOONS

Haunted bird song trilling across the lake
Loons dipping under water, then surfacing
Far away where their night calls can make
Even the most subdued heart start pounding

Stark black and white striped patterned wings
Those bright golden eyes alert to all
Who come too near — they miss nothing
Now choosing to submerge far down — no call

No one hunts them, knowing that shooting loons
Could be done, retrieving them another matter
Would the water dogs plunge in too soon
Or wait hours for them to surface later?

No trail but silence to show they are gone
Drowning forever their lovely, eerie song

Mary Kendall


CORPORATE CUTS

Five years ago the cut was surgical.
Just minutes with the boss and it was done
a severance of sinew, muscle, bone
shock was the anesthetic, then slow heal.

This time they used an endless tourniquet
new paradigms, objectives, letters, dates
twisting his job description with new weights
revealing their design by slow degree.

He slept, I fought with dread through winter nights
Is what I think I'm seeing really there?
And then more business, spring - I dropped despair.
The date they gave him passed. We'll be alright!

Till yesterday - the car door slams, he walks
with office things, like ashes, in a box.

Violet Nesdoly


GOOD GIRLS
a response to John Updike’s “Dog's Death”

She had been burned unseen and beaten by a man.
Too young to know much, she could hardly understand
To use newspapers on the cellar floor unfurled
And to croon, peeing there, the words, "Good girl, good girl."
Harried social workers had overlooked her stuttering shiver.
The autopsy revealed repeated trauma to her liver.
As he teased her with taunts, blood was filling her torso
But her cries only drove him to strike her more so.
Across America, entitled kids were casually fed
On doting parents’ love, while she huddled naked on her dad’s bed.
They found her gnarled and defeated but still alive.
In the ambulance, strapped and stroked, she stoically died.
Across America, doting parents unfurled with disbelief
Newspapers which caused moms to succumb to feral grief,
Not comprehending the kind of eternal, paternal love
That allows a father to desecrate a pure white dove.
But life goes on despite such swine after pearls
Ever creating more blindly obedient Bad Good Girls.

Karen de Balbian Verster


INABILITY OF LOVE TO TRIUMPH OVER DEATH

"Don’t take your shower just this one Friday night
Need I remind you that you don’t feel just right?"
His grumbling followed his rambling toward the bath.
Typically, my suggestion flamed his wrath,
And he proceeded to do the opposite.
Our love, over sixty years, a composite
Of willpower and compromise between us,
From which a mere bath could not ever wean us;
So, I went my way, and he went to his death !
I heard the thud - unaccompanied by breath
That shot me through the door; sank me to the floor
To hold his smiling, empty face - nevermore !

I’ll always wonder,"Why did he leave smiling?
Was Infinity’s vision so beguiling?"

Catherine M. LeGault


THE BOY

He stands alone, hooded, arms-outstretched, without a friend
A tiny offering over an untried abyss
He stands like that for hours on end
To satisfy a State’s interests

There is no reason, protest though they might
No information that he has, nothing that they need
No territory marked, no wrong, no right
No honour, justice, wish for revenge, not even greed

They hold him there because they can
To make their power real, to demonstrate their strong unwavering stance
Meanwhile alone, alone and lost he stands
Forsaken and forgotten; he’s seventeen; he wets his pants

His body now his enemy, his thoughts scatter, his reasons flee
Beneath the hood with no rescue due, his tears exit silently

Iris Lavell


TRIBUTE TO A POET

We’re making flyers for the grand affair –
the date and place (we’ve changed the venue twice);
the guest of honor with an ashen stare
looks out of Kodachrome, his lips a vise

that long to grip a cigarette. So bare
the ground-floor hall we’ve rented, at what price!
But these last days he couldn’t climb a stair;
his legs, this August, have gone stiff as ice.

But he can stand a moment, and recite
some lines of his own verse, those youthful words
transforming our immortal appetite
for song, as fleeting as the call of birds,

as timeless as the tunes of Thanatos.
We make our plans and keep our friendships close.

Taylor Graham


MEMORIAL DAY

What can I say?
Again it is late
in fragrant May,
again it is the date

when disillusionment,
in light dimmed
and life spent,
spread untrimmed

across my face,
like grass covering
a dead space.
I am rediscovering

that you'll never see
this that is now me.

Charles Michaels

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