‘Golden Retrievals’ by Mark Doty is told from a rather unconventional perspective. Personifying the thoughts of a golden retriever out on a walk with its owner, the poem starts off as a whimsical juxtaposition between the perceptions (or lack thereof) humans and dogs have regarding time.
But soon, it becomes an earnest and affectionate meditation on how grief and anxiety can consume our minds and lives—leaving us in a mournful daze and obscuring whatever happiness might be gleaned from the present.
Explore Golden Retrievals
‘Golden Retrievals’ by Mark Doty imagines the stream-of-conscious thoughts of a golden retriever while on a walk with their owner.
‘Golden Retrievals’ begins in a flurry as the speaker — a golden retriever — describes some of the different things that “capture [their] attention.” Playing fetch with balls or sticks only does so briefly, while commands to “catch” are met with frivolous defiance. Instead, their short attention span is gripped by all the movement around them.
Caught up in the sensory distractions all around them, the speaker takes a whiff of the air and is guided by instinct to a variety of destinations. From a pond and ditch to the “residue / of any thrillingly dead thing.” They then surprisingly turn their attention to their owner. Commenting on the way they’ve wasted “half our walk,” sulking on memories lost to the past.
The speaker also criticizes their owner’s worries about tomorrow — a concept they struggle to find the word for. Their purpose, as they understand it, is to “ensnare” their owner from their vexing entrapment within the past and future. The poem ends with the speaker offering their “shining bark” as a luminous guide beckoning them toward the present.
Structure and Form
‘Golden Retrievals’ is comprised of four stanzas, three of which are quatrains, while the final one is a couplet. The poem is loosely structured as a Shakespearean sonnet, one that uses slant rhymes and a similar meter. Doty also uses both end-stopped lines and enjambment throughout the poem, connecting each stanza to the ceaseless and free-wheeling thoughts of its speaker.
‘Golden Retrievals’ makes use of the following literary devices:
- Auditory Imagery: a depiction of sound and noise, as when the speaker cries “woof!” (11) or refers to its “shining bark” (12).
- Kinesthetic Imagery: Doty also illustrates movement in the poem, as when the speaker darts through the brush to find a “bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh / joy—actually scared” (3-4).
- Olfactory Imagery: There is also imagery that invokes the reader’s sense of smell, which occurs when the speaker “sniff[s] the wind …//… muck, pond, ditch, residue / of any thrillingly dead thing” (4-6).
- Visual Imagery: imagery that creates a mental picture, as when the speaker mentions the “balls and sticks” (1) being tossed at it by their owner.
- Metaphor: Doty uses a number of metaphors, such as “sunk in the past” (7), to describe the owner’s grief, comparing it also to a thick mist that they’re lost in: “off in some fog concerning / —tomorrow” (9-10).
- Onomatopoeia: Doty also uses onomatopoeia at the end of the poem when the speaker says, “bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow” (14), which phonetically mirrors the sound of their bark.
Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then
In the first stanza of ‘Golden Retrievals,’ we are introduced to the easily distracted and particularly loquacious speaker of Doty’s poem. It also doesn’t take long to piece together that they are a golden retriever — a Scottish breed known for its affectionate temperament and use as a hunting dog. Immediately, the dog’s breathless vim overtakes the poem’s tone and cadence. Effectively establishing the speaker’s inherent carefree nature as a dog.
As the owner tells them to fetch and catch, they respond with blunt honesty and playful disobedience. Part of the problem is the objects themselves: “Balls and sticks capture my attention / seconds at a time” (1-2), they confess. Preferring instead to chase everything from the falling leaves to a bunny and squirrel. Even expressing delight when they realize — “oh joy,” they think to themselves — when they manage to sneak up on one of the critters.
I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
The second stanza of ‘Golden Retrievals’ begins with the speaker continuing a train of thought from the last stanza as they “sniff the wind” (4) and catch a variety of scents that send them exploring. Of course, those odors are pungent and emanate from things people tend to avoid: “muck, pond, ditch, residue / of any thrillingly dead thing” (5-6). But not this golden retriever — these things bring evident excitement and allure.
It’s here that the speaker turns their thoughts back to their owner. “And you?” (6) they ask in an accusatorial manner. Unlike their furry companion, the human has spent “half [their] walk, / thinking of what you never can bring back” (8). It is an ambiguous sentiment but one still deeply familiar to any person who has ever yearned for the past or been haunted by grief.
This lucid observation reveals the brooding owner as even more distracted than their golden retriever, as at least the dog is enjoying the present. Underscoring how the unburdened perceptions and experiences of a dog might be salient points of wisdom.
or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
Stanza three of ‘Golden Retrievals’ continues the speaker’s critique of the way their owner is spending their outing. Not only are they consumed by thoughts of the past, but they’re also often found in a “fog concerning / —tomorrow” (9-10). The golden retriever’s question about “tomorrow” being the correct word only emphasizes their blissful ignorance of such a concept. Dogs don’t worry about tomorrow; they relish today.
This is part of what the speaker believes their purpose to be — at least when it comes to their owner. With a jarring “woof!” (11), they endeavor to pull their owner from the time warp they find themselves trapped within. Literally shaking them from their thoughts with a bark but also figuratively: “retrieving, / my haze-headed friend, you” (11-12).
a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
‘Golden Retrievals’ ends with the speaker barking at their owner in an attempt to break them out of their funk — if only for a moment. Here, the “shining bark” (12) mentioned in the last stanza is compared to a “Zen master’s bronzy gong” (13), elevating it to a symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.
Their goal? To bring their owner “here, / entirely” (13-14) into the present out of the agonizing past or anxious tomorrow. Like the resounding echo of the going, their bark reverberates like a mantra of onomatopoeia: “bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow” (14).
The poem’s theme appears to be an affectionate reminder to not lose yourself in the misery of things you cannot change or know for certain. Consumed by such thoughts, the speaker’s human owner fails to enjoy the present.
Some of Doty’s earliest works deal heavily with contemplations on mortality and grief. One of his partners, Wally Roberts, was diagnosed with HIV in 1989 and died a few years later in 1994. This poem was part of a collection he released four years after he passed, so it’s entirely possible the poet drew on that profound personal loss as inspiration for the dog’s owner. It’s also worthy of note that he is the owner of a golden retriever himself.
Throughout the poem, Doty uses this motif of a cloudy daze to illustrate the obscuring and disorienting effect of the owner’s thoughts. They are engrossed by them but also “ensnared,” much like a person lost in the murky and dense fog.
One interpretation is that it stems from the comparison to a gong. Like the instrument and the sound it creates, the speaker’s bark is thunderous and resounding. But it also has a lambent quality. Like a gloaming light, it appears to guide the speaker back to the present through the haze of their grief and worries.
- ‘Dog’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti – This poem also uses the perspective of a dog to muse over humanity.
- ‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ by Emily Dickinson – This poem compares people to dogs and cats to uncover similarities.
- ‘My Dog Practices Geometry’ by Cathryn Essinger – This is an affectionate and humorous poem about one’s pets.