Animals in Literature

Poetry and the Language of Animals

Stevie with bookThis is a post about literature, and what literature can teach us about other animals. Ironically enough, poems and stories to do with animals are at their best when they leave certain things unsaid. In the past century, literary animal figures have become more prominent in revealing—and at times informing—our understanding of non-human beings. This is in part due to the paradox of our modern relationship with other animals; despite our increased understanding of them in biological terms, our physical proximity to animals has greatly diminished as technology and mass agriculture distance us from the process that renders them objects of consumption.As writer and cultural theorist John Berger has written, “What we know about [animals] is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.”[1]

Literary animal figures can both embody and refute this paradox. At one end of the spectrum lie the animals turned symbols or metaphors, ignored as individuals in their own right and used solely to comment on some aspect of the human condition; an example would be Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. In the middle lie anthropocentric depictions of human animal interactions such as Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse”. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, are the stories and poems that try to recreate an experience from the perspective of an animal. Writers within this third category are challenged to move beyond anthropocentrism (a human-centric viewpoint) when representing the lives of other animals, and those that do so successfully eventually find themselves confronting the limits of human language. This is where things get interesting.

Language, both that which we use to describe ourselves and that which we use to describe others, constructs identities. When writers and poets—perhaps the most astute critics of language (including their own)—self-reflexively point to the gap between word and referent in their descriptions of animals, it sheds light on the way in which language helps to construct the concept of animality. At the same time, it allows us to consider the unseen perspective of a non-human animal. “What must be witnessed is not just what we can see but also what we cannot see”, writes writer and professor Cary Wolfe, in reference to the non-human perspective.  “Indeed, that we cannot see. That too must be witnessed. But by whom if not by the other?”.[2] The problem with attempting to write an animal’s experience is that the real animal discourse will always remain just out of sight.

Our knowledge of the animal, said French philosopher Jacques Derrida, is heavily dependent on the language we use both to conceive of these beings and to distinguish them from ourselves. The very term the animal serves to draw a line between us and them, Derrida explains, a line which is further underscored by the fact that it was through naming other beings that we claimed dominion over them. In other words, by pinning an animal down in language, no matter how many rhetorical and stylistic flourishes a writer has up his/her sleeve, s/he will necessarily lose  something of the animal’s actual state of being. Nevertheless, the unspoken world of animals was and remains a creative temptation for writers who seek to test their mastery of language. And while writing an animal entails human interference and capture, the practice rather exemplifies our society’s practice of keeping tigers and polar bears in zoos under the guise of protecting their species from extinction. This is why writers who expose the problem are so important.

One such writer who fits the bill is French poet Francis Ponge (1899-1998). Ponge was known for his poems about things—everyday objects like candles, crates, and blackberries—but he also wrote a number of poems about animals. “Comment se fait-il qu’ils deviennent pour nous une sorte de langage?” (“How is it that they become for us a kind of language?”) he asks in a preface to one of his collections, before answering that we treat them as such because they are like us yet different, and therefore easier to represent artistically. As his own attempts at animal representation indicate, however, his answer contains no small degree of irony.

Ponge’s poem “Les hirondelles ou Dans le style des hirondelles (Randons)”[3] narrates the act of writing using verbs, nouns, and adjectives that attempt to recreate the aerodynamic flight of swallows. Despite the poet’s efforts to bring his words into proximity with the subject in question, he encounters stumbling block after stumbling block that suggest the birds cannot so easily be caught on paper. The fact that Ponge attempts to capture them even while acknowledging the impossibility of doing so accentuates the characteristically modern dichotomy between our perception of animals as both complex, independent subjects, and commodified objects. Yet Ponge’s poem eventually de-privileges the human perspective by illustrating the gap between the flight he perceives and the flight as it’s experienced by swallows, which enables the real animals to remain outside the confines of the text.

The swallow strikes Ponge as an ideal writer because its “plumes” are by physiognomy attached to it, already dipped into its inky-blue body: “Plume acérée, trempée dans l’encre bleue-noire, tu t’écris vite!” (“Sharp quill, dipped in blue-black ink, you write yourself quickly!”). Yet although swallows are able to write their own existence in the sky through their fluid, soaring movements, Ponge wishes to write them himself, to appropriate (or swallow) their words so that they may become his words and his poem: “Voici les mots, il faut que je les dise. | (Vite, avalant ses mots à mesure)” (“Here are the words, I must say them. | (Quickly, swallowing its words as I do so”)). Despite his efforts to circumnavigate the name hirondelle in order to marry its form and meaning, the gap between the real birds in the sky and the strokes in Ponge’s notebook is unavoidably wide. In another line he considers reproducing “Le texte de leur loi” (“The text of their law”) before admitting that it would be inevitably his law that he wrote down.

The poem ends with an appeal to the birds’ strength and talent in writing themselves. The speaker instructs the swallows to go forth from their perch and clean up the mess in the sky and on the page, likening his own words to pesky insects that can be gobbled up by the quick-soaring birds. Most notably, however, he instructs them to leave the page, escape the confines of language, and express themselves with their own “cris aigus” (“piercing cries”). The speaker of “Les hirondelles” relinquishes control over his animal subjects and underscores in ink the line where language ends and animal being begins.

What makes the above-mentioned poem, written in the 1950s, important to our understanding of animals today is that it attempts to destabilize the reader’s gaze by making it unclear whether we are reading about swallows or about language. By addressing the real birds that his readers cannot see, the poet chips away at the dominion and knowledge we assume we have over other animals. By contrary, Ponge suggests that there is another, autonomous existence that belongs to the animals he tried to put on display. Veterinarian and anthropologist Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence has described the connection between poetry and animals as the most immediate bond between humans and animals, writing: “In poetic terms, animals may take on human qualities and humans may take on animal qualities. But antithetically, the poetic process also makes use of and preserves the separateness that exists between people and animals.”[5] Poets like Francis Ponge, as well as other writers and artists, highlight the separateness between people and animals by preserving that which cannot be represented of animals. In this respect, they illuminate the essential otherness of their subjects and stage the poetic equivalent of what Matthew Calarco refers to as an ethical encounter with animals, one “in which an animal could strike a human being as radically Other and challenge the categories under which human thought and practice might place a given animal”.[6]

These literary encounters with animals respond to our modern fascination with an animal world we erroneously assume we know, and their self-reflexive nature enables us to recognize the ethical and aesthetic quagmires to which this assumption can lead us. With their cautious and inquisitive language, these poems and stories teach us to approach other animals as autonomous beings, as subjects as opposed to objects. For a society that has grown content with treating certain animals as sentient subjects (for instance companion animals), while treating others (like agricultural and laboratory animals) as commodified objects, I’d say there is ethical as well as artistic merit to literature that teaches these kinds of lessons.

Vanessa Robinson


[1]Berger, John, “Why Look at Animals?”, in About Looking (New York: Pantheon, 1980), p. 14.

[2] Wolfe, Cary, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), p. 167.

[3] Ponge, Francis, Œuvres complètes I, ed. by Bernard Beugnot (Paris: Gallimard, 1999), pp. 795-99.

[4] Ponge, Francis, Œuvres complètes I, ed. by Bernard Beugnot (Paris: Gallimard, 1999), pp. 745-48.

[5] Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood, “Seeing in Nature What Is Ours: Poetry and the Human-Animal Bond”, Journal of American Culture 17.4 (1994), 47.

[6] Calarco, Matthew, Zoographies. The Question of the Animal From Heidegger to Derrida (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), p. 64.

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