Brutiful: Writing Poetry with Dogs — and for Them. An Essay on Multispecies Poetry

by Mara-Daria Cojocaru, PhD

Mara-Daria Cojocaru is PAN Works’ Writer in Virtual Residence, one of our Fellows skilled in ethics and philosophy, and Privatdozentin at the Munich School of Philosophy. Here she shares her insights into multispecies poetry. Mara kindly translated this into English (original in German). After reading, you’ll understand why we are blessed to have Mara as one of our fellows.

— Bill Lynn

It’s usually only in fairytales and fables that other animals use language the way we humans do. Ethnologists estimate that humans currently speak about 7000 languages. Put aside for the moment the attempts to teach our linguistic concepts to primates or birds and forget, too, how we condition some animals to recognize certain words as signals for certain things that will happen in their environment, and it looks like none of these languages help to communicate with other animals. Yet people are increasingly interested in doing precisely that. They want to understand what they share with other animals and what is different for them about being in the world. There is also a widespread sense that humans need to transcend or at any rate broaden the anthropocentric horizon that is given to them in virtue of being human. Arguably, the countless poems that, roughly since the turn of the millennium, feature all kinds of animals — dodos, dogs, cloned sheep, you name them — are a testament to that.

Mara with Doktor Humphrey Stumpfkorn

However, while poems about other animals are legion, do they actually testify to these animals themselves? Can such writing do more than just reproduce the linguistically framed conceptions and knowledge bits humans have created about other animals? And if that was actually everything, might that not be enough? There is a sense in which authors who have contributed to this lyrical menagerie (and I count myself among them) feel uncomfortable with these questions. Whence these extra-poetic standards? Yet as someone who lives with other animals and, in some sense, for them, I do feel that such questions are crucial.

Now, many of these poems come across as somewhat moral. They criticize the power discrepancies that dominate human-animal-relations. They are invitations to meet other animals on equal footing, and readers can train their moral sentiments and attitudes in imaginative encounters and situations. Granted, not many people read poetry today and those who do and are happy to engage in such an éducation sentimentale might well be a pretty self-selecting bunch. However, above and beyond this limitation, is there anything in it for the animals themselves when humans start using poetry to express interests and perspectives that humans and other animals share? After all, despite animals’ popularity in contemporary poetry, readers are always humans.

Yet those shared interests and perspectives are real — indeed, human animality especially comes to the fore when we appreciate the embodied and emotional qualities of language and the fact that not every thought needs to, let alone can, be expressed in a full proposition. This is precisely not an instance of anthropomorphism but a recognition, in the full sense of the word, of those aspects of life that humans and other animals share.

It is the prerogative of poetry to transcend the culturally given limitations of human language and to experiment with new ways of expressing meaning. Since other animals, too, have language (yes) and culture (yes!), poetry might actually turn out to be the genre that is best suited to allow for human language to be permeated by the experiences of other animals. Eventually, if human language was to be successfully hybridized in a multispecies way, other animals might come to benefit from that just because linguistic habits influence how humans think and act. Irritating these habits through new ways of using language has at any rate critical value that can transcend the literal meaning of what is being said. This is familiar from debates about gender-mainstreaming.

So, why not — finally — write poems with and for other animals, and not just about them? This is precisely what an international team of humans and companion dogs is currently trying to accomplish. Dogs are the species of choice because, unlike many, if not most other animals, they are generally interested in us humans, which allows us to enter into relations that can be characterized by mutual benefit and likewise affection and joy, even though this is still a far cry from equality.

From June to October 2022, the teams experiment with essentially two ways in which animal agency can be translated into poetic co-authorship: On the one hand, they will copy specific forms and patterns that characterize the participating dogs and use these to produce visual poetry on historical texts on domestication, dog training, breeds and husbandry via erasures and superimpositions. On the other hand, they will work to catch what seems so similar for poetry and scent — the importance of high concentration, the evocation of meaning and memory — in poems that will have olfactory elements chosen by the dogs themselves as well as lyrical notes produced by the humans in response to the dogs’ choices.

Dogs with very different backgrounds, habits and specialisations participate in this creative poetry experiment, which, needless to say, works only if everybody is having fun: there is one who dog has retired from a career in customs, others who haven’t had the best start in life, whether through neglect or abuse as puppy production machine, the talents of designer breeds meet those of streeties, some work as collectives, some as lonesome geniuses. Participating humans are similarly diverse, yet they have one thing in common: They are all curious to learn how creative their dogs can be — and they with them — and what we humans can learn from dogs about perceiving and understanding the world. And they are keen to produce poetry that, ultimately, can be read by dogs, too. Sure, the dogs’ interpretations might end up being altogether different from those of humans — yet that, too, is something that poetry allows for.

Mara-Daria Cojocaru

The poems will be presented as part of a reading and exhibition in February 2023 — stay tuned #multispeciespoetry, #learningfromanimals.

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People•Animals•Nature (PAN) is a publication of PAN Works, an ethics think tank dedicated to the wellbeing of animals. https://panworks.io