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The Boston Globe


The story behind the book

Mary Oliver’s recent poems go to the dogs

david wilson for the boston globe

In “The Storm (Bear),” poet Mary Oliver catches the essence of a dog in winter, who “spins/ until the the white snow is written upon/ in large exuberant letters,/ a long sentence, expressing/ the pleasures of the body in this world.”

Oliver, a longtime Provincetown resident, is one of our most adored poets, and a longtime lover of dogs. The popularity of a volume devoted to them feels as inevitable and welcome as a wagging tail upon homecoming.

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Oliver, whose book “Dog Songs” has settled into the local bestseller list, joins a long history of poets writing about their dogs — some dredged in sentimentality, others as keenly observed as Billy Collins’s “Dharma,” about an animal who would be “a paragon of earthly detachment/ . . . if only I were not her god,” or as heartbreaking as Don Paterson’s “Mercies,” about putting down a beloved elder dog, still alert to her master’s love, “for all / the wolf in her.”

Books about dogs will always find readers, it seems. The past few years have seen a flood of them, from memoirs like New York Times editor Jill Abramson’s “The Puppy Diaries” to scientific inquires like Gregory Berns’s “How Dogs Love Us” and Cat Warren’s “What the Dog Knows.” Susan Orleans explored the long cultural history of “Rin Tin Tin,” while Sharron Kahn Lutrell pondered the ways dogs and people help each other in “Weekends With Daisy.”

Perhaps the real mystery isn’t why readers like to read about dogs but why so many writers seem drawn to them as a subject. It’s not really so surprising. Most writers work at home, alone all day but for their pets. A cat likes to sit on your keyboard and get in your way, but a dog and a writer go together very well: Both like walks; both leap up when the doorbell rings, excited by the possibility of distraction from their silent vigils.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at

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