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Poetry > Nov 8 - Dog's Death - John Updike

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message 1: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments John Updike needs no introduction to this group, I’m sure. In addition to his well known short stories and novels, he’s written quite a bit of poetry, too. We’ve read a couple of his before.

Dog's Death

She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car.
Too young to know much, she was beginning to learn
To use the newspapers spread on the kitchen floor
And to win, wetting there, the words, "Good dog! Good dog!"

We thought her shy malaise was a shot reaction.
The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver.
As we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin
And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

Monday morning, as the children were noisily fed
And sent to school, she crawled beneath the youngest's bed.
We found her twisted and limp but still alive.
In the car to the vet's, on my lap, she tried

To bite my hand and died. I stroked her warm fur
And my wife called in a voice imperious with tears.
Though surrounded by love that would have upheld her,
Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared.

Back home, we found that in the night her frame,
Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame
Of diarrhoea and had dragged across the floor
To a newspaper carelessly left there. Good dog.

John Updike

message 2: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments This hits close to home for those of us who have had beloved dogs.

My question to you is, do you think it crosses the line from sentiment to sentimentality? And if it doesn't, why not?

message 3: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (Melissaharl) | 1363 comments To me that final image is too strong to be dismissed as sentimental.

message 4: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7335 comments If it makes you cry, is it sentimental?

message 5: by Ruth (last edited Nov 08, 2008 12:24PM) (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments I'm trying to draw a distinction between sentiment as in having sentiment, and sentimentality as in going over the top for the cheap shot.

I think this poem has sentiment. It almost brought tears to my eyes, too. Sentimentality wouldn't have caused me to tear up.

Philip, I think you're right. The poem is almost nothing but a list of images and small events. And the images ring straightforward and down to earth. Nothing about big pleading brown eyes or other such greeting card claptrap.

message 6: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7335 comments It did make me cry. I'm still not over Cisco.

message 7: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments Well I thought of Suzy Beagle, and she's been dead lo these many years.

message 8: by Ken (new)

Ken | 820 comments To me, the final two words -- "Good dog" -- are a testament to what a dog is. The fact that a pup on the doorstep of death would STILL be thinking not of itself but of pleasing its master... whew. Powerful stuff said with a powerful image.

message 9: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments Exactly, NE.

Sherry (sethurner) (sthurner) To me the beauty of this sad little domestic scene is that while it is specific to this pet, this family, the sense of loss, the experience is universal. I'm willing to bet that nearly every person who reads this flashes some similar scene of loss. That last part, where the dying dog reached the newspaper, made me think of loved ones - not necessarily pets - misunderstood until after they were gone. It is a powerful image.

message 11: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (Melissaharl) | 1363 comments Very well said, Sherry, thanks.

message 12: by Yulia (last edited Nov 08, 2008 09:19PM) (new)

Yulia | 1625 comments I actually didn't think of my own currently-fading dog when I read the poem: I simply envisioned the world as he presented it, which for me means this poem had a life of its own, not merely touching my easy-to-hit dog-parent button.

message 13: by Yulia (last edited Nov 08, 2008 09:18PM) (new)

Yulia | 1625 comments May I also add this, something I wrote in response to a comment on this board about a work's not being sentimental (God forbid) meant as praise of the work. I understand sentimentalism is a cheap way to move readers, but sentimentality is not in itself a bad thing. These are my thoughts:

"I think sentimentality is given a bad reputation by book critics, but in reality there’s nothing wrong with being sentimental with those you love, not in a false, melodramatic manner but in an appreciative, open-hearted manner. I like being in a relationship where feelings are freely expressed, as perspectives are debated.

Definition: emotional, romantic
Antonyms: dispassionate, hard-hearted, indifferent, pragmatic, unemotional, unromantic

"Lack of affect is praised as a sign of calm reason, but to me it speaks of apathy and distance. It speaks of an over-medicated world.

"I’m not referring to heaving bosoms here, but asking others to consider that affect and reason are not mutually exclusive, just as the mind and body have now been proven to be inextricably linked. Think about it, then go off to tell someone why you appreciate them. Go on now!"

I've said what I needed to. Now I'll go back to my utterly sentimental, smushy, dorky life.

message 14: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments If a poem has no sentiment, it has no way to reach our hearts.

What I'm trying to distinguish is the difference between sloppy, cliched sentimentality with the heaving bosoms you refer to, versus a poem with good, honest feeling and sentiment.

I'm thinking that Updike has skated close to sentimentality merely by choice of subject, if nothing else. "Poor doggie, he was so good and sweet and now he's gone." Gack.

But he's pulled it off by the honesty of his image/moments. Sentiment without sentimentality.

message 15: by Yulia (last edited Nov 08, 2008 10:12PM) (new)

Yulia | 1625 comments Yes. I completely agree. It is a subject prone to weepy wistfulness (how can it not?), but Updike doesn't condescend to his dog or to us in this poem, and he has my respect for that.

His poem doesn't drool on us.

message 16: by Ken (new)

Ken | 820 comments ... or chew our slippers (that is, if anyone still wears slippers).

message 17: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 7335 comments (I'm wearing slippers right now.)

message 18: by Graceann (new)

Graceann (SilentsGirl) I don't usually read the poetry; not that I don't appreciate its artistry, but I'm just not drawn to it as much as others. This one, however, struck so close to home. I see it as an honest offering of sentiment, and don't feel that it has crossed a line into maudlin manipulation. Would I still be crying even if I hadn't lost a "Good Dog" of my own? Probably, but then loss in any reference affects me that way.

message 19: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments Me too, on the slippers.

message 20: by Pamela (last edited Nov 11, 2008 04:09AM) (new)

Pamela | 127 comments I like this poem, and I think the fixed form saves it from an overarching sentimentality.

Here are two other poems on dogs that are heartbreakingly good. (I'll add a disclaimer that they were written by my former teachers).

William Matthews: "Loyal"

Daniel Anderson: "Elegy for the Dying Dog"

message 21: by Ken (new)

Ken | 820 comments I like this line:

And her heart was learning to lie down forever.

It's cool the way Updike worked in a dog command used in training and made it work overtime in a figurative sense as a stand-in for Death.

The sensory detail of the warm fur and the biting on the car ride to the vet's is good stuff, too.

"Imperious with tears." I find that choice in words interesting, as concerns the wife.

message 22: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments Gack, Pamela, I got up in a somewhat blue mood, and those poems just pushed me over the edge.

This morning it's easy for me to see the implications of death for us all in them.

message 23: by Andy (last edited Nov 12, 2008 01:00PM) (new)

Andy Yulia, I liked this comment:
"Lack of affect is praised as a sign of calm reason, but to me it speaks of apathy and distance."

My initial reaction to Ruth's question was this: if the final stanza was such an indignity to the dog, why share it?

Trying a link to another poem on the subject:
Susan Kinsolving: "Our Second Airedale"
(Bad link; see poem text below)

message 24: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9207 comments if the final stanza was such an indignity to the dog, why share it?

Because it demonstrates the undying love and effort the dog devotes to being a "good dog" no matter what. And it does it without being schlocky and weepy.

Like the airedale poem. Wish we could see it in its entirety. I did some googling but didn't find more.

message 25: by Candy (last edited Nov 12, 2008 12:08PM) (new)

Candy Hmm, I had a similar response to Andy's question. If the final stanza was an indignity to the dog, why share it?

I liked this poem, but I did not like exposing the dog's last aattempt to hit the newspaper. I think it was very clever to round off the poem with a callback(and respect that a good many poems are built on this kind of callback)...but I felt the way I do if someone had said soemthing similar about a human.

I am probably way too sentimental about dogs and pets as they have a reveerence for me.. If someone had written that anyone in my family had diarrhea at the end...I would find it weird to share...

I actually wondered if this was the first time the narrator had had a dog? That it's body functions and death were an uncharted territory so they spelled everything out.

I had a very strange triggered a memory of my dad.
I don't know if I have told this story to you guys before.

When my father was in his last weeks alive and I was at the hospital with him...he could only "speak" by using a cardboard alphabet...or his laptop. With his als he was just still able to type. He also became vulnerable to a "care-giver" who was abusing him...he wanted his lap top...but this person wouldn't bring it to the hospital.

We finally got them to drop it off for my dad...and he was going through some files and photos with me...and he opened a mesage from this person...and they had left him a message which haunts me to this day...about his lack of body function: and this messgae made my father old military guy who was brave right till the end with his als.

I can not repeat it's too was so hurtful and scary.

...but...the end of this poem seems to show so little respect for the body dying and it's break down. I can not separate the lack of tact for a dog as for a human.

I don't see the poem as sentimental, but I do feel that closing stanza put the poem in a "freak show" or "carny" vibe.

I see that as my fault and my problem...rather than the poem...and over all the poem deeply moved me.

I was just terribly disappointed when the narrator seemed to show so little tact, but rather a kind of "carny" attitude to the bodys breakdown. The narrator and tone strikes me as someone who is not familiar with the subject matter: "a dogs death". I'd like to believe that the narrator might be revealing their own sense of fear for the processes of life, and stages of living and dying?

(I used to work in an animal hospital for years and in palative care for humans..on and off for years...and we cared for animals in all stages of life and I tend to be coming at this from that perspective I suppose...we would never have spoken of an animal in this manner...)

message 26: by Andy (new)

Andy Oh goodness, I did not realize that google books skipped a few pages there. My apologies. Here is the poem in its entirety.


The monk suggests electric shock.
He is a Franciscan; for an hour,
he has listened over long distance.
The trainer tells us to try tranquilizers,
a muzzle, a cage, and consistency.
The canine psychologist says, "Naturally,

you betrayed him. He used to be the baby
and now, no doubt, he's just the dog."
For the vet, it is an old war, fought

again. A kind coercion, domestication is
a slight twisting of the legs upon which
instinct runs, a small severing of the five
senses from the soul, like fingers from
the hand, the paw. The whole thing is a howl.

Trying to teach "an old dog new tricks,"
eventually, we are tied to a tragedy
of manners, a choke chain of choices.

He cannot adjust. Every night he keeps us
awake. He cannot be left, in any way, alone.
Under his fur, under our furniture, he is
so alone. He destroys five doors, but never
escapes. With his teeth, he attacks
a docile bitch, who dies. He resists his last
chance, a new master. When thunder trembles
he convulses with fear. Then, one quiet after-

noon, as cool air bends the grass over the deep
hole he has dug to elude the hot summer
days, we take him. Indirect, as so many human
plots and meanings, we "have him put to sleep."
Sad masters of obedience and death, we tried
and tried, wanting to be playful and humane.

Susan Kinsolving
Dailies & Rushes

message 27: by Yulia (last edited Nov 13, 2008 10:17AM) (new)

Yulia | 1625 comments I'm still catching up, reading the other dog poems. Pamela, about Matthews' poem, I liked his making a distinction between love and longing. It brings so many questions to mind about the people I know in their own human relationships. In truth, I'm rather selfish: I don't want my dogs to live forever: I just want them to be here as long as Frank and I are around. Since I treat them like our children, it seems so wrong to have to expect to lose them before I go. I also thought, no, I don't want to watch over earth forever. I simply want to watch over the people I know to see how they do. But that'd make me feel helpless, wouldn't it? I wish I could choose how I existed after death, though I know logically there's only nothingness and the others' memories.

About the Anderson poem, I thought, what a coincidence the dog was Virgil. I just watched a film called "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," and as the title character was fading, he kept on speaking of his brother-in-law Virgil and I thought, I wonder how Virgil would think about being associated with death and the grim reaper. Would he thank Dante?

And Andy, as for the Kinsolving poem, I think, for the large majority of cases, there aren't bad dogs, only bad owners.

message 28: by Cassie (new)

Cassie | 13 comments I was really intersted in what you had to say Candy about your father's last days and about how writers treat the last moments of life and I do think that there is a tendency in the Updike poem to go slightly too far in the diarrohea image- it reminds me of how different Whitman is in his animal poem and how- from the perspective of having one dog in my life so far- I think that we sometimes tend to anthropomorphise too much. Was the dog so schooled that it felt shame at being incontinent- I think not- and those last lines seem more about the owner's attempts to live with their grief that about the dignity of the dog. I may be overly harsh and I do like the poem, but I'm also trying to get to grips with what Ruth was saying about sentimentality.

message 29: by Andy (new)

Andy Yes, Yulia, I was thinking of introducing the Kinsolving poem with something like:

"And speaking of apathy and distance..."

message 30: by Pamela (last edited Nov 13, 2008 03:27AM) (new)

Pamela | 127 comments Ruth, sorry for the despondent start to your day!
I have another dog poem if you need more depression:

Richard Wilbur

Yulia, I think you're spot on in your reading of Matthews' poem. I love the line, "I was thick with both." It's probably my

As for your question about Virgil, I don't know if he'd like to be associated with death, but based on my reading of his Bucolics, I don't think he'd mind leading Dante around, or on.

message 31: by Candy (last edited Nov 13, 2008 07:06AM) (new)

Candy Yikes...those are a wap of sad "putting dogs to sleep" poems...I found my self googling "sentimental happy dog poems"

And with the Kingsolver poem...I felt bad for the narrator because they maybe should try another dog that isn't a terrier breed! Terriers are wonderful dogs but super high energy. Anyone who, like me, watches "the dog whisperer" knows that every dog has a "job" and that poor airdale needed to have a job. They have a lot of energy and need to run, play and dig...then they will pass out in their den for the night.


I think the Matthew poem really reflects the sense of guilt or unresolved guilt and responsibility many dog owners have when they practice compassion for a suffering pet...and with the contemporary options of euthanasia. (versus the options say, of "old yeller")

Cassie, I think maybe what we are seeing or are able to choose to see in some of these poems is the contemporary ethical issue of euthanasia...which is a subculture movement for many people. I think the anthropomorphizing is really a projecting of our our fears mixed with the trendy idea of "dying with dignity".

In Wilburs poem the narrator, a young boy,, says "Well, I was ten and very much afraid.
In my kind world the dead were out of range"

...and I think that is capturing something in Updikes narrator and in Kingsolvers narrator:these are entities that are coping or processing with death being something being removed through our practices often of having the ill in hospitals or with professional opposed to more traditional cregivers being the immediate family.

In many contemorary families...death is something feared, and illness is given over to medical and professional services. Many people are unfamiliar with caring for the elderly in their families ...and compare that with societies that the ill or elderly "walk into the forest or snow".

I've had at least three people in my family, who when diagnosed with serious conventionally "fatal" illnesses wanted to plan a suicide or euthanasia. My father had said many times during his diagnosis with als that he was going to die at home by his own hand. My grandfather when he got cancer said he was in the hospital with his first round of treatment...and he talke to a nurse one night. He had several regrets in his life...and he told the nurse he hadn't been good to my grandmother, and he didn't want to suffer so he was going to go home and take his dog in the garage with him and end it "peacefully". This nurse said, he still had a few months of strength...and he could go home and resolve his guilt with his wife in the next few months instead. My friend Michael...when he got a very serious bout with aids related symptoms, planned on taking an overdose of heroin.

All three of these men in my life changed their minds. I was most surprised by my father...who was terrified of death, and terrified of any other people or himself...that he decided to run the course.

All three of them did die in hospitals...but after resolving many personal issues that had surfaced and been triggered during their illnesses. Their individual choices were acts of bravery to me...and it highlighted how often we don't speak of our personal demons...or don't see death and illnesses except as a fear. I admire them all immensely for their individual courage.

I think with the dog poems we have seen here in this is possible to embrace the a positive manner. These poor narrators are juggling the sense of responsibility...with the options for compassion for their dogs. We can anthropomorphize because in Kingsolvers poem...the narrator says the dog is afraid of thunder. Dogs are mirroring and responding to pack leaders. So a dog is a reflection of the behaviour within a pack/family. The poems eventually strike me a brave because the narrators aren't "perfect"...they are often selfish sounding, choosing euthanasia over training! Or taking a dog to a vet rather than giving the same care in their homes: at the cost of time, money and effort...versus fear and other obligations.

The act of caregiving within a family has become something we can "hire out" in our society. And all of us have the potential to struggle with the guilt of how much work caregiving is...with compassion for pain maintenance or for patient comforts. And...of course...most families do not have the options of someone staying home with an ill person. Each of these poems showcases a bit of family dynamics in them, which I find fascinating too.

I see these poems as examining all the issues surrounding caregiving, guilt, compassion, responsibility, and extending life spans, or self-determining life spans, through the choices we make and our relationship with fear of death.

Now...I'm off to finish reading some "sentimental happy dog poems" Dagnabbit!

message 32: by Theresa (new)

Theresa | 566 comments I saw Updike last night and meant to ask him about this poem, but unfortunately the 2,000 other people in the room got in the way ;-)

The presentation was interesting, but it was not the best SAL presentation I've been to by a long shot. David Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) and the Seattle Art Museum curator interviewd Updike. Updike is a trained artist and has a sideline as an art critic, something I didn't know. He has apparently written on Hopper, and the curator had him discuss some Hopper paintings - they showed slides on a huge overhead projector - and then read a poem he had written on two paintings.

This all seemed a manner of advertisement for the Hopper exhibit currently at SAM, and it worked in that it made me want to see the exhibit. But the discussion of Updike himself and his work was rather shallow, IMO. I did have a tangerine drink of some sort before the presentation, that I have decided is my new favorite alcoholic drink, except that I can't remember what the heck it was called. It had mint leaves, and was not excessively sweet, which is my complaint with most fruity drinks.


message 33: by Sandy (new)

Sandy | 28 comments This Kipling poem, The Power Of The Dog, says it all for me. And, Candy, you are right on about terriers. Busy, energetic, intelligent, sweet dogs.

The Power of the Dog
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie--
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.
When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet's unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find--it's your own affair--'ve given your heart for a dog to tear.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!);
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone--wherever it goes--for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart for the dog to tear.
We've sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we've kept 'em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long--
So why in Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

message 34: by Candy (last edited Nov 14, 2008 08:50AM) (new)

Candy Theresa, how wonderful to be at the event. I haven't been to an author event in a year, and am sorely missing that experience. I saw Sherman Alexie read/speak a year ago. I wonder...your beverage sounds like an orange based mojito...?

You could use a mojito recipe, and replace the lime with fresh squeezed orange and likely skip the sugar (seeing as oranges are more sweet tasting than limes)

Here is Wikipedia:

Sandy, I really enjoyed that poem and I am surprised as I'm not usually a Kipling fan.

I thought about training dogs for rescue a few years ago...and making a documentary about the process. I wanted to study the people and dogs who work for rescues. This was before there were so many options on cable with dog programs (boy has tv changed in the last ten can find programs on just about every trade and subject now). I interviewed several rescue dog trainers.

I came across many websites that had dog poems...and one I actually hand copied into a scrap book. It is probably going to be quite sentimental to those outside the rescue dog arena...or dog people. It is written in a biblical or sacred text style. It relates in some ways to the Kipling poem in acknowledging the unconditional love and faithfulness of dogs. I actually believe I posted it here before in Constant Reader.

Although I find the sexism in the following offensive, I give it some rope as I understand many sacred texts and religions are gender slanted. I found many of the rescue dog trainers I contacted, to be practicing Christians and so I imagine this poems conventional gender slant was comfortable for them at the time it was written. The over all feel of this poem struck me many years ago...I still well up when I read it. I think the co-opting of sacred text format with the incantatory phrasing really enhances the feeling of this poem:

God summoned a beast from the field and he said, "Behold man, created in my own image. Therefore, adore him. You shall protect him in the wilderness, shepard his flocks, watch over his children, accompany him wherever he may go...even into civiliation. You shall be his companion, his ally, his slave. To do these things. God said, I endow you with these instincts uncommon to other beasts. Faithfulness, Devotion and Understanding surpassing those of man himself. Lest it impair your courage, you shall never forsee your death. Lest it impair your loyalty, you shall be blind to the faults of man. Lest it impair your understanding, you are denied the power of words. Let no fault of language cleave an accord beyond that of man with any other beast or even man with man. Speak to your master only with your mind and through your honest eyes. Walk by his side, sleep in his doorway, forage for him, ward off his enemies, carry his burdens, share his afflictions, love him and comfort him. And in return for this, man will fullfill your needs and wants which shall only be food, shelter and affection. So be silent and be a friend to man. Guide hi through the perils along the way to the loand that I have promised him. This shall be your destiny and your immortality." So sayeth the Lord and the dog heard and was content.

message 35: by Ken (last edited Nov 14, 2008 12:54PM) (new)

Ken | 820 comments Sandy -- The Power of the Dog is also the title of an bizarre modern western by Thomas Savage. Now I know where he got the title.

message 36: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) | 260 comments I know this is an old post but my Ex-wife just called and her precious/favorite dog just died unexpectedly so I was searching for this wonderful poem. Thanks for posting it Ruth!

message 37: by Joan (new)

Joan Colby (joancolby) | 398 comments The formality of the poem (internal and external rhymes), the way the language works evades sentimentality. Real sentiment grips us, sentimentality always has an echo of falsity. Updike shows us what death is like, how obedience has been installed so the dog's last action is to adhere to what it was taught. And he raises the question of how instinct also enters in, as the dying dog tries to bite his hand (self-preservation) rather than the sentimentality of having it lick his hand.

message 38: by Kenny (new)

Kenny Chaffin (kennychaffin) | 260 comments Happy Birthday John!

It’s the birthday of writer John Updike, born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1932). His father was a high school teacher, and his mother aspired to be a writer; Updike said: “One of my earliest memories is of seeing her at her desk. I admired the writer’s equipment, the typewriter eraser, the boxes of clean paper. And I remember the brown envelopes that stories would go off in — and come back in....
From Writer's Almanac today

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