What Can We Steal From Erin Belieu’s “I Heart Your Dog’s Head”?

Title of Work and its Form: “I Heart Your Dog’s Head,” poem
Author: Erin Belieu (on Twitter @erinbelieu)
Date of Work: 2006
Where the Work Can Be Found: The poem appears in Black Box, Ms. Belieu’s 2006 Copper Canyon Press book.  The Poetry Foundation has made the poem available on its web site.

Bonuses: Check out this great interview the poet gave to Willow Springs.  Ms. Belieu also conducts interviews with poets.  Want to hear Ms. Belieu read her work?  (Sure, you do.)

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Subject Matter

Discussion:
Poems have to be all dark and depressing, right? Don’t poems have to illuminate the author’s saddest thoughts?  Appropriate subject matter for poems: romantic break-ups, deceased pets and the worst day you ever had…right?

Of course not!  Poems can also be fun and can deal with any subject under the sun–or beyond.  Ms. Belieu’s free verse poem is about her reaction to watching Bill Parcells coach a game on television.  Now, the poet makes it clear she doesn’t care about football, but she understands that football, like everything else, is a chapter in the vast narrative of our society.  After discussing her antipathy for Mr. Parcells, Ms. Belieu reveals her history of not caring about football despite having been born in Nebraska, one of the places where football is a particularly prominent part of the social fabric.  The thought leads her to recall the barking Chihuahuas on her street.  Finally, Ms. Belieu “puts her faith” in reincarnation, hoping that Mr. Parcells is someday “trapped in the body of a teacup poodle” so she can hear his yapping.

I loved that Ms. Belieu wrote a poem about a popular subject.  Too many folks think that poems must be inaccessible and must deal with “fancy-pants” topics…not so!  Football is the same as any other human endeavor; poets have the right to take a look at the sport with the full power of their critical acumen.  I  have done the same on occasi0n, writing poems for my blog on my favorite Ohio State sports site.  (Why do I write poems for a community that is sport-centric?  Well, poetry belongs everywhere and we shouldn’t assume that a “sports fan” doesn’t like what we do.)

The overall point is that we have permission to take on any subject we like.  Football, computers, cars, Kardashians, the latest episode of Hell’s Kitchen…they’re all within our purview as artists.  More importantly, we SHOULD interact with the rest of what is happening in our culture.  Writers are the people who make sense of the world; we chronicle the evolution of the human soul.

Even better, Ms. Belieu doesn’t make the poem solely about football.  Everything that we do means something more than is apparent on the surface, right?  Just before the final stanza, she builds upon her football- and Chihuahua-related discussion.  Why were those lines important?  Well, they led her to think about “what’s wrong with this version of America.”  She engages in cultural criticism, seeming to raise issues regarding the tribalism inherent in sport (Go Bucks!) and perhaps the obligation people feel to like a team just because their parents did.  People like Bill Parcells, who she feels is happy and successful for the wrong reasons, will win the game, in spite of his sins.  (Are you curious as to whether Mr. Parcells won in the game to which Ms. Belieu refers?  Me too.  Well, Mr. Parcells left the Jets in 1999 and returned to coaching with the Cowboys in 2003.  At the time, the Giants and Jets shared Giants Stadium, part of the Meadowlands Sports Complex.  The Cowboys played the Giants in Week 2 of the 2003 season.  The score?  Well, Mr. Parcells and the Cowboys won the game in an overtime thriller, 35-32.)

A writer can’t simply tell a story or provide his or her reader with a bare description of something; it’s our job to explain what that thing means.  That single game is now pretty irrelevant, relegated to the memories of those who attended and to box score statistics.  Thanks to Ms. Belieu’s insight, however, that 2003 game can still have a big effect on us.  After all, we read the poem and it had some impact upon us!

I’ve been wracking my brain as to why Ms. Belieu made a specific choice in the poem.  Approximately halfway through, she writes:

…of breaking a soul. Yes,
there’s the glorification of violence, the weird nexus
knitting the homo, both phobic and erotic,
but also, and worse, my parents in 1971, drunk as
Australian parrots in a bottlebush, screeching…
Look at that middle line.  I love the way she condenses two words that are somewhat long and unwieldy.  Instead of burdening the line with both “homophobic” and “homoerotic,” she is using language in a somewhat playful way and is inviting us to do the same.  As I said, I do wonder why she cast the line that way.  Why not:
knitting the homophobic and homoerotic
Well, as I said, I like the fun use of language.  But why did she use commas when she could have used em-dashes?
knitting the homoboth phobic and erotic
Or parentheses?  After all, that second clause is a parenthetical statement.
knitting the homo (both phobic and erotic)
I’m certainly not criticizing Ms. Belieu’s choice; I’m just trying to understand the effect the choice has so I can use it in my work in the future.  I think that the commas keep the poem flowing more fluidly than parentheses would.  (A parenthetical thought might stop the reader for  a moment.  Didn’t this parenthetical thought stop you just a little?)

The lines that contain that fun sentence benefit from the slipperiness of the comma instead of the businesslike interjection of parentheses.

What Should We Steal?

  • Empower yourself to confront any element of the human experience.  There can and should be poems (and stories) about everything that has an effect on human beings.
  • Add relevance to something that may seem irrelevant.  I’m a big baseball fan and I love my Detroit Tigers.  The Tigers play 162 games a year (not including the playoffs).  It’s hard for me to remember a game a week after it’s played; the ones that endure in my memory are the ones to which I applied a special significance.
  • Contrive your lines with the sounds of the words and phrases in mind.  Even if you’re breaking a grammar rule or two, your higher duty is to communicate your thought to the reader in the most efficient way.

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