The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Gerald Stern’s “The Dog” is a free-verse dramatic monologue. In it, a dog speaks from the roadside where he lies dead. In the first third of the poem, the dog talks about his condition, explaining how he lay beside the road for hours before he died and how he looked after death. In the middle third of the poem the dog addresses the “lover of dead things” who will come to dispose of his body. Finally, the dog addresses the “great human heart” (which may be the same as the lover of dead things), asking it for forgiveness and love.

Stern is often compared to the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman for his sense of expansiveness and for his fondness for parallel series and hyperbole. All these qualities are apparent in “The Dog,” as is Stern’s attention to concrete detail. The dog, for example, describes his death with painful specificity, relating how he lay beside the road for two hours, whimpering and dying at last “by pulling the one leg up and stiffening.” He details the particular look of death—“the hair of the chin/ curled in mid-air.”

As the dog imagines the “lover of dead things” coming to dispose of his body, he expresses his fear that disgust may overtake the lover and cause him to push him perfunctorily into “that little valley” with his shoe, shutting out the memories of the dog in life and replacing those memories with “some other thing.”

At last the dog makes a sort of...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Stern is not a formal poet; he uses free verse, and conventional figures of speech are rare in his poems. More typically he uses subjects that take on metaphoric significance as he explores them in detail. A good example is his well-known poem “Behaving Like a Jew,” in which the speaker finds a dead opossum on the roadside. He says that he refuses to make self-satisfied comments about the creature’s having rejoined the great cycle of nature; instead he intends to behave like a Jew in mourning the loss of the animal’s quick spark of life. In the course of the poem, the reader recognizes a commentary on Jewish attitudes toward death and finally sees the opossum itself as a portrait of a Jew. Similarly in “The Dog,” the significance of the speaker-dog grows out of the mounting detail about the dog itself and about the person (or perhaps persons) being addressed.

Stern frequently begins his work with a conversational tone, as he does here. “What I was doing with my white teeth exposed/ like thatI don’t know,” the dog begins, describing how he waited for death and the “lover of dead things” to arrive. The lover mysteriously carries a sharpened pencil and a piece of paper as if to catalogue the bodies it disposes of. As the dog describes the lover, Stern begins a series of parallel statements detailing the lover’s fear of the dead animal. Beginning in line 13, eight successive clauses begin with “I know,” “I think,” “I want,”...

(The entire section is 531 words.)