Golden Retrievals

Mark Doty

‘Golden Retrievals’ is a poignant poem that personifies man’s best-friend in an attempt to remind us that happiness and shelter from life’s woes is best found in the present.

Mark Doty

Nationality: American

Mark Doty is a contemporary American poet who is regarded as one of the most important poets of his generation. 

He won the National Book Award for Poetry.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: A gentle reminder to not let grief or anxiety keep you from enjoying the present

Speaker: A golden retriever

Emotions Evoked: Excitement, Freedom, Grief

Poetic Form: Shakespearean Sonnet

Time Period: 20th Century

This is a truly unique poem that uses personification and a stream-of-consciousness-style narrative in order to describe how important enjoying the present is.

‘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.


‘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.

Literary Devices

‘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.

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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.

Stanza Two

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.

Stanza Three

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).

Stanza Four

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).


What is the theme of ‘Golden Retrievals?

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.

Why did Mark Doty write ‘Golden Retrievals?

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.

What is the significance of the motif of “fog” and “haze” in the poem?

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.

Why is the speaker’s bark described as “shining” in the poem?

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.

Similar Poems

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Golden Retrievals

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Mark Doty (poems)

Mark Doty

This poem by Mark Doty offers a playfully poignant portrait of grief that's gleaned creatively from the perspective of a golden retriever. As a result, much of its imagery revolves around the poet's captivating imagination of the whims and fancies that drive our furry companions. The result is a poem that balances a sullen fixation on human sorrow with the carefree and unconditional affection offered by man's best friend.
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20th Century

This poem by Mark Doty is indicative of 20th-century literature, mainly because of its personable subject matter and other idiosyncrasies. In particular, the poem's subject matter and inception are owed to the effects of the AIDS epidemic that swept through the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s. The dog's owner is heavily implied to be Doty himself, who suffered immense personal loss due to the disease.
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Mark Doty is a famous American writer who has been compared to poets of acclaim like Walt Whitman. His poems intersect the deeply personal with the earnestly universal. Some of his earliest poems are renowned for their representations of his life as a gay man in America, like this impressive example of his work, and are dedicated to the devastating but formative loss of his partner to AIDS.
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New Life

Mary Doty's poem expresses an earnest desire for a new life. This is mainly articulated through the speaker's attempts to pull their owner out of the fog of sadness that's consumed them in the aftermath of losing a loved one. The poem presents the dog's carefree and jovial appreciation of life as a catalyst for its owner's attempts to move on from the tragedy.
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Recovery is an important theme inherent to Mark Doty's poem. This healing is initiated by the poem's happy-go-lucky speaker: a dog on a walk with its owner. Throughout the poem, they sincerely try to dispel the emotions that are dragging their human down into the past when they should be focusing on enjoying the present.
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Mark Doty explores themes such as the relationship between the speaker and their owner. In many ways, this relationship appears at the moment one-sided, as one is distracted and preoccupied with the grief. The other (the dog) attempts to gleefully wake their troubled owner for the purpose of injecting some small happiness into their life.
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Excitement is one of the defining emotions in Mark Doty's poem, imbuing both its tone and mood with a carefree ebullience. This is mainly owed to the poem's chosen speaker: a dog that doesn't understand concepts such as time or grieving over the past. Instead, they're purely consumed by the joys of the present and delight in their walk.
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An emotion expressed within Mark Doty's poem is a sense of freedom. Again, this is rooted in the speaker's excitement and sense of liberty they enjoy while out on their walk. Unlike their owner, they're crucially not afflicted by painful memories of the past, leaving them free to frolic unburdened by such thoughts.
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Grief is adjacently alluded to in Mark Doty's poem. But like time, the dog as speaker expresses an inability to understand why their owner is so dejected over something that's happened in the past. Especially when there is so much joy and frivolity to be savored in the present. In many ways, the poem offers a tender reminder through its speaker to not allow oneself to be fully consumed by such anguish.
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Although it's not directly mentioned in the poem, there are a number of contextual clues and details that reveal the speaker to be a golden retriever. These include the poem's title, which plays on the dog breed's name to underscore their grief-soothing role as their owner's pet. The result is a touching poem about the boundless affection dogs provide.
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A topic that Mark Doty's poem touches on is loss. It's not directly addressed in the poem, but the speaker does allude to the fact that their owner is still suffering and agonizing over something that's happened in the past. While this might be exceptionally ambiguous, the poet's own life and tragedies greatly inform the poem.
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Mark Doty's poem takes place while the owner and speaker are out on a walk. Because the setting is described through the eyes of a golden retriever, it is illustrated in terms of hyper-specific sensory details. These come as fragments of visual, kinesthetic, and olfactory imagery that reveal all that takes place during their walk.
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This poem by Mark Doty also mentions Zen, a Japanese school of Buddhism whose teachings focus on meditation and intuition as pathways toward enlightenment. Such a perception takes into account the apparent carefree nature dogs inherently possess. Unlike their owners, who are constantly bombarded by a variety of anxieties and strifes
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Shakespearean Sonnet

In this poem by Marky Doty, the poet replicates loosely the structure and form of a Shakespearean sonnet. At first, this form might appear somewhat out of place alongside the poet's typical use of free verse. The organization of its three quatrains does well to encompass the poem's dynamic imagery fully. At the same time, the ending couplet resolves the tension between grief and life.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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