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People share the world with animals, and many poets find their inspiration by visiting creatures in their lairs, both literally and figuratively. While it’s a safe bet that more poetry is written about the kinds of animals that touch the human heart such as pets, beautiful song birds, or animals that people see as cute, like squirrels, there are plenty of poems that celebrate everything from bats to fish. Examples of animal poetry can be found in all cultures in poems as tiny as a haiku, as complex as a sonnet, or as joyful and just plain ridiculous as those written for children.
Poetry is not only frequently peopled by animals, but it uses some of their attributes metaphorically. Animal poetry that features a giraffe’s eternal silence, a gazelle’s leaping grace, or a lion’s fierceness might be used to represent human emotion. Species habits can be another source of metaphor; for example, Mary Oliver uses the flight of wild geese as a symbol of belonging.
Poets like Elizabeth Bishop even forge connections between the watery underworld and the human dimension. In her poem "The Fish," the narrator catches a huge, vividly described, and very ugly fish. Over the course of the poem, however, the fisher realizes a deeper beauty in the life and struggle of the fish; scarred as it is, it has clearly lived.
Narrative interaction between the poet and a particular beast can also become the subject of animal poetry. William Stafford’s "Traveling Through the Dark" poignantly explores the boundary between life and death through the image of a pregnant deer killed by a car, whose fawn is momentarily still alive. Although the poem focuses on the deer, it is ultimately about the kinds of choices humans are forced to make.
Shy Emily Dickenson studies a snake, “a narrow Fellow in the Grass” with the eye of a childlike scientist. She sees the snake with a kind of purity, as “The Grass divides as with a Comb.” While the unexpected appearance of the snake leaves her breathless, she also finds the snake, as with other creatures, to be welcoming and filled with “Cordiality.”
Children love, and identify with, animals even more than do adults. Animal poetry for young readers often offers a sweet silliness, as found in Edward Lear’s "The Owl and the Pussy-Cat." As every youngster knows, cats stalk birds in hopes of killing and eating them. Some kids might recognize there are exceptions; larger birds, such as owls, might be hunters instead. In this poem, however, these two mismatched creatures fall in love, take a boat onto the sea, and are wed.