‘My Dog Practices Geometry’ explores themes of writing, animal/human relationships, and understanding. The poet goes into the different ways that one can see the world and then tell about it. She then uses the technique of personification to describe the actions of her dog as she tries to catch a squirrel. The various ways that humans and animals understand the world are alluded to in the final lines.
The poem begins by speaking about the use of personification in poetry. It is something that other poets don’t like but the speaker enjoys it. She shows off some interesting examples of it, including one about her dog practicing geometry. This leads to a discussion of her dog’s attempts to catch a squirrel.
You can read the full poem here.
‘My Dog Practices Geometry’ by Cathryn Essinger is a ten stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They vary in length, number of words and syllables. There is also a difference in the use of end-punctuation throughout the poem. Some of the sentences run on for multiple lines or stanzas while others are much shorter, only one or two lines long.
Essinger makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘My Dog Practices Geometry’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, personification, allusion, and alliteration. The first, enjambment, occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between the first three lines of the poem and the second stanza.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For instance, “sinking” and “skirts” in the second stanza and “trees, and tripping” in the seventh stanza.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In the second stanza, the poet refers to the willow tree as “Clytemnestra”. This is an allusion to the wife of Agamemnon, king of Mycenae. He was one of the pivotal figures in the Iliad.
Lastly, personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. The willow trees, in the first and second stanzas. The poet uses personification to speak about the tree, but also to comment on what is or is not appropriate in writing and who decides.
Stanzas One and Two
I do not understand the poets who tell me(…)lost in her own melodrama, sinking on her skirts.
The first two stanzas of ‘My Dog Practices Geometry’ begins with the speaker, who is likely the poet herself, discussing personification. She enjoys and it and doesn’t understand the “poets who tell her] / that” she shouldn’t use it. In an effort to show how useful it can be she uses it to talk about her willow tree and the various roles it plays. This is an example of the poet’s own imagination and the wonder one can find in the world if they look close enough.
Stanzas Three and Four
Nor do I like the mathematicians who tell me(…)from which she bisects the circumference
In the next lines of ‘My Dog Practices Geometry’, personification is used again to talk about the flowers in her garden. The same technique applies to her dog. If she wants to, she says, she will say that her dog is “practicing…geometry”. In an effort to make sense of the technique, and this humorous phrase, she explains what she has seen her dog do. She often watches the yard, the squirrels, and the trees, in order to figure out where to go next.
Stanzas Five and Six
of the lawn until she finds the place where(…)the maze of the oak as if it were his own invention,
The fifth and sixth stanzas of ‘My Dog Practices Geometry’ use techniques like alliteration and enjambment to help depict the actions of her dog. She is a clumsy creature who does her best to catch the rodents in the yard. The poet describes her as using geometry to track the animals and figure out the best way of catching them. She is not very successful as the next stanzas explain.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
her feet tangling in the roots of trees, and tripping,(…)now lounging under a canopy of leaves,
The dog is clumsier than she is good at geometry. She gets caught up in the “roots of trees” and ends up tripping. The owner, the poet, tries to help by pointing out the squirrel in the tree, but it doesn’t do anything.
Her dog becomes distracted by her exclamations and determined that the owner can do something more to help in the last lines of ‘My Dog Practices Geometry’.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
catching its breath, charting its next escape,(…)can surely charm a squirrel down from a tree.
The poet’s dog reads her lips and tries to understand what’s happening. Rather than follow her hand, she is determined that the owner can do something to bring the squirrel down from the tree. Her point of reference is the fact that she can “bring” the dog “home / from across the field with a word”. This is a warm and lighthearted ending to a humorous and self-aware poem. It touches on the connection between humans and animals and the ways that living creatures interpret events.