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Steve Whitaker
Literary Editor
2:08 AM 11th October 2020

Poem Of The Week: 'The Behaviour Of Dogs' By Craig Raine

The Behaviour of Dogs

Their feet are four-leafed clovers
that leave a jigsaw in the dust.

They grin like Yale keys and tease
us with joke-shop Niagara tongues.

A whippet jack-knifes across the grass
to where the afghan’s palomino fringe

is part Opera House curtain, part
Wild Bill Hicock. Its head

precedes the rest, balanced like
a tray, aloft and to the left.

The labrador cranks a village pump,
the boxer shimmies her rump,

docked to a door knocker, and
the alsation rattles a sabre –

only the ones with crewcuts fight.
Sportif, they scratch their itches

like one-legged cyclists sprinting
for home, pee like hurdlers,

shit like weightlifters, and relax
by giving each other piggy backs …


On the lines of our earlier excursion into the world of acrobatic metaphor and simile – with Christopher Reid’s ‘Baldanders’ – we bring you Craig Raine’s acutely observed, and very funny, series of couplets. Taking an entirely fresh approach to a way of seeing, ‘The Behaviour of Dogs’ bravely entertains the possibility of observation for its own sake, as though meaning might be conferred in the simple act of uncovering joyous verisimilitude.

Craig Raine
Craig Raine
As painstakingly frank as a pretence of seriousness – the poem’s title parodies a kind of science – Raine’s riotous clotting of ideas elicits truth through startling figurative realisation.

Creating a Crufts of the imagination wherein all canine proclivities meet, the poet might also be tracing the traits of doggy owners in their pets. That the absurd Pavlovian carnival of stimulus and response includes the urges to procreate, micturate and defecate in public does not abjure the presence of similar human impulses, which are made to look the more ridiculous by association.

The difference is one of appearance, of the way in which dogs undertake their various ‘performances’, in the directed and purposeful manner that Billy Connolly once said they share, like members of a strange conclave of canine cognoscenti. ‘Dogs’, he said, ‘always seem to know where they are going’.

And if you fail to be lifted by Raine’s description of short-haired thug-dogs having an abstracted scratch, ‘like one-legged cyclists sprinting / for home’, you can have no sense of fun.

‘The Behaviour of Dogs’ is taken from The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, edited by Blake Morrison and Andrew Motion.