The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

“Dog” is composed in free verse, a style that can preserve the blunt effect of common speech. Without either “a” or “the” preceding it, the word “dog” has a linguistically rudimentary quality that is in keeping with the poem’s subject. “Dog” also spells “god” backward and thus anticipates one of the central concerns of the poem.

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The poem begins with the dog of its title demonstrating that the canine is the measure of all things in its world. The first eighteen lines catalog the drunks, moons, fish, ants, and chickens that are the large and small of “his reality.” They show too the delightful naïveté of the dog’s view: Streetlights are “moons on trees”; fish lie on newsprint for no apparent reason; ants emerge mysteriously from holes; chickens’ bodies are for sale in one place, and their strangely dislocated heads appear elsewhere, consigned, presumably, to the garbage. The dog’s own qualities permeate all of his experience, measure it all, so that “the things he smells/ smell something like himself.”

With the third occurrence of the line “The dog trots freely in the street,” the catalog of perceptions continues, but the most noteworthy feature of lines 19 to 30 is the dog’s standard of value. As the dog continues to trot through the urban scene, cows and policemen appear. Only the sides of beef, however, are of “use,” since the dog can eat them. Policemen are inedible, but in the nonjudgmental world of the dog, they are neither loved nor hated.

San Francisco sights pass by as if the reader is being carried along by a canine tour train. The Romeo Ravioli Factory does not look or smell like its product, and therefore has little appeal to a dog whose preference runs to the immediate lure of a “tender cow.” Coit’s Tower, the memorial to the earthquake and fire of 1906, stands high on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco and has the appearance of an extremely large and imposing fire hydrant. Congressman Doyle, however, is not so imposing; he is “just another fire hydrant.” The congressman’s implied views do not impress the dog, who takes solace in his own “free world” and refuses to be muzzled and silent. One need not know anything specific about the real Congressman Doyle in order to infer that he would likely have objected to the dog’s version of individualism and freedom. (A later version of “Dog,” in Ferlinghetti’s Endless Life: The Selected Poems, 1981, makes clear that Clyde Gilman Doyle was a member of the House Committee on Un-American activities.)

The last section of the poem, lines 47 to 84, begins again with “The dog trots freely in the street,” but the poet no longer traces the stream of images passing before the eyes of the dog. Instead, what were implied political and philosophical issues earlier become explicit in the description of the general nature and significance of the dog’s action. He is now a “real realist,” a “democratic dog,” an ontologist who will tell a tale with a tail. Lacking language, he will tell no lies and be no perjurer.

The final image of the dog with his ear turned toward the gramophone horn takes up the previously dramatized question of what one can know of reality and leaves it suspended.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 482

“Dog” is one of a group of poems that were collected in the volume A Coney Island of the Mind under the title “Oral Messages” and were originally intended to be “spontaneously spoken” to jazz accompaniment. The repetition of words and phrases, an important source of formal patterns in “Dog,” would be as evident to the ear as to the eye. Many of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poems can be read with the syncopated swing of jazz or a shuffle blues, and “Dog” responds to such an approach. The poem’s rhythm is not perfectly consistent from line to line, but four-stress lines predominate. Many of them, such as “Fish on newsprint,” have few unstressed syllables, and such compression of stresses in the poem gives the impression of thoughts that are vivid and self-contained rather than complex, linked, and moving lyrically from one to the next. The simplicity of the language also helps convey the quality of the dog’s perceptions and the confident matter-of-factness of a consciousness untroubled by irony and self-doubt.

The staggered lines, beginning with line 57, continue the earlier form of the free verse, but the eye tends to follow them from left to right and to make them single lines in the process. This is also the section in which the poet’s presence is most obvious. The poem no longer describes what is perceived through the dog’s eyes, but rather represents the dog’s actions from the viewpoint of an observer. It does so first in the general terms of philosophy and politics, and then, beginning with “as if” in line 70, by means of a comparison with the Victor records mascot, which is an amusing but also powerful act of the imagination. The Victor dog shows that puzzlement in the face of the universe is common to dog and man, but the form and method of the dog’s characterization creates irony, because it points up how unlike the dog’s-eye view the poet’s view is. The staggered long lines succeed in expressing a human mode of synthetic thought and speech, and the act of relating the San Francisco dog to the Victor dog dramatizes a human recognition of connection and similarity that is different from the dog’s often fragmented experience.

Despite the seriousness of the poem’s deepest themes, its use of dense stresses, simple language, and whimsical analogy gives “Dog” a light-hearted quality that is typical of many Ferlinghetti poems. “Dog” also contains examples of Ferlinghetti’s fondness for wordplay: A “tough cop” isn’t a tender meal; “Coit’s Tower” is easily read as “coitus tower”; a “tail” tells a “tale”; the gramophone’s answer is “Victorious”; and prolific use of the word “real” creates absurdity in a poem that makes the very term problematic and also punctures the ideal of “being realistic” that is so dear to the American pragmatic spirit.

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Themes