Recently, I came across a Philip Whalen poem that offered an amusing example of interspecies communication. Check it out:
Walking along Elm Road
Handful of nasturtiums, butter, some kind of bread
75¢ the loaf no advertising included
Bread and air and a price tag wrapped in plastic
The dogs come out as usual to roar at me
I find myself screeching wildly in reply
Fed up with suppressing my rage and fear
I bellow and roar
The dogs are scared and their people scandalized
"What are you trying to do? HAY! What are you trying to do?"
I had nothing to tell them; I was talking to their dogs.
One of the charms of this poem, for me, is its ordinariness, even banality. Who hasn't, out of sheer frustration with being barked at (by angry dogs or other beings), lost it, and barked back? I know I have, though, unlike Whalen, the last time I remember barking at a dog (a Doberman in my case), I don't think I was able to silence him.
But paradoxically, it's the very unexceptional quality of the event narrated here that makes it unusual. For there's a rich, imaginative tradition, spanning culture high and low, that paints the talent for "talking to animals" as a mysterious, nearly superhuman power.
In fact, in psychic/new age jargon, this talent has got a name --"zoolingualism" -- and it's a power possessed by everyone from Tarzan, Dr. Dolittle and St. Francis, to horse whisperers, like the one Scarlett Johansson once portrayed. Or like the shaman, in Elizabeth Bishop's great poem, "The Riverman," which begins:
I got up in the night
for the Dolphin spoke to me.
He grunted beneath my window,
hid by the river mist,
but I glimpsed him -- a man like myself.
When it comes to the mythologies surrounding poets and the act of writing poetry, the tradition of zoolingualism becomes (excuse the pun) even more pronounced. Orpheus, the archetypal poet, could understand the language of birds. And his song tamed even the fiercest beasts, as celebrated in this medieval mosaic (in which you'll notice a few wild dogs).
Whalen himself, for that matter, wasn't averse to this more mythic type of interspecies communication. Here's his poem "Never Apologize; Never Explain":
A pair of strange new birds in the maple tree
Peer through the windows
Mother and father visiting me:
"You are unmarried,
No child begot
Now we are birds, now you've
Although in dreams we visit you
in human shape"
They speak Homer's language
Sing like Aeschylus
The life of a poet: less than 2/3rds of a second.
The Language of Barking
What's especially interesting, though, when it comes to a poem like "The Turn," is that the down-to-earth way it portrays such communications suggests how the sounds we emit as natural, rather than supernatural, beings actually can resemble the language of dogs, or other (nonhuman) species. Alva Noe, a philosopher grounded in cognitive science, comments:
"One of the very many false ideas about language is that its primary function is to express information or communicate thoughts. Speech has many functions, but surely a large part of it is more like the grooming behavior of chimpanzees or the shepherding behavior of dogs than it is like reasoned discourse among parliamentarians. We bark so that our kids get out the door in time to get on their bus and so that they feel safe and loved...The bulk of what we do and say each day is more like the grunts and signals baseball players use to indicate who'll catch the pop fly than it is like genuine conversation."
All of which is to say that language involves the performance of acts as much as it does the transmission of ideas. The dogs bark to chase Whalen away. He barks back to stand his ground. You could say at this moment -- one animal communicating with other animals -- he's "one with nature," as a Romantic might put it. But this doesn't mean, in the poem's realist version of this idea, that man and beast are necessarily going to get along.
Then again, to complicate matters a bit more, perhaps the language the dogs and the poet speak here has nothing to do whatsoever with anything the least bit "natural." For aren't the dogs stand-ins for their owners, speaking a social message for which they've been trained, one that can simply be translated as "no trespassing"?
And by answering the dogs, rather than their owners, perhaps the poet implies that such social aggression, unleashed on whoever's in the mere vicinity of a private property, doesn't deserve a civil reply. Thoughts?