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TED2014

Billy Collins: Two poems about what dogs think (probably)

March 20, 2014

What must our dogs be thinking when they look at us? Poet Billy Collins imagines the inner lives of two very different companions. It’s a charming short talk, perfect for taking a break and dreaming …

Billy Collins - Poet
A two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins captures readers with his understated wit, profound insight -- and a sense of being "hospitable." Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I don't know if you've noticed,
00:13
but there's been a spate of books
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that have come out lately
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contemplating or speculating
00:17
on the cognition and emotional life of dogs.
00:19
Do they think, do they feel and, if so, how?
00:24
So this afternoon, in my limited time,
00:27
I wanted to take the guesswork out of a lot of that
00:29
by introducing you to two dogs,
00:31
both of whom have taken the command "speak"
00:34
quite literally.
00:39
The first dog is the first to go,
00:43
and he is contemplating an aspect
00:45
of his relationship to his owner,
00:50
and the title is "A Dog on His Master."
00:52
"As young as I look,
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I am growing older faster than he.
00:59
Seven to one is the ratio, they tend to say.
01:02
Whatever the number, I will pass him one day
01:06
and take the lead,
01:09
the way I do on our walks in the woods,
01:11
and if this ever manages to cross his mind,
01:14
it would be the sweetest shadow
01:18
I have ever cast on snow or grass."
01:20
(Applause)
01:25
Thank you.
01:28
And our next dog
01:30
speaks in something called the revenant,
01:33
which means a spirit that comes back
01:37
to visit you.
01:39
"I am the dog you put to sleep,
01:43
as you like to call the needle of oblivion,
01:47
come back to tell you this simple thing:
01:50
I never liked you."
01:53
(Laughter)
01:55
"When I licked your face,
01:57
I thought of biting off your nose.
01:59
When I watched you toweling yourself dry,
02:02
I wanted to leap and unman you with a snap.
02:05
I resented the way you moved,
02:09
your lack of animal grace,
02:11
the way you would sit in a chair to eat,
02:13
a napkin on your lap, a knife in your hand.
02:16
I would have run away
02:20
but I was too weak,
02:21
a trick you taught me
02:23
while I was learning to sit and heel
02:25
and, greatest of insults,
02:28
shake hands without a hand.
02:30
I admit the sight of the leash would excite me,
02:34
but only because it meant I was about to smell things
02:38
you had never touched.
02:41
You do not want to believe this,
02:45
but I have no reason to lie:
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I hated the car, hated the rubber toys,
02:50
disliked your friends, and worse, your relatives.
02:54
The jingling of my tags drove me mad.
02:59
You always scratched me in the wrong place."
03:03
(Laughter)
03:06
"All I ever wanted from you was food and water
03:08
in my bowls.
03:11
While you slept, I watched you breathe
03:13
as the moon rose in the sky.
03:15
It took all of my strength
03:17
not to raise my head and howl.
03:19
Now, I am free of the collar,
03:22
free of the yellow raincoat,
03:24
monogrammed sweater,
03:27
the absurdity of your lawn,
03:29
and that is all you need to know about this place,
03:32
except what you already supposed
03:34
and are glad it did not happen sooner,
03:38
that everyone here can read and write,
03:40
the dogs in poetry,
03:43
the cats and all the others
03:47
in prose."
03:50
Thank you.
03:52
(Applause)
03:54

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Billy Collins - Poet
A two-term U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins captures readers with his understated wit, profound insight -- and a sense of being "hospitable."

Why you should listen

Accessibility is not a word often associated with great poetry. Yet Billy Collins has managed to create a legacy from what he calls being poetically “hospitable.” Preferring lyrical simplicity to abstruse intellectualism, Collins combines humility and depth of perception, undercutting light and digestible topics with dark and at times biting humor.

While Collins approaches his work with a healthy sense of self-deprecation, calling his poems “domestic” and “middle class,” John Taylor has said of Collins: “Rarely has anyone written poems that appear so transparent on the surface yet become so ambiguous, thought-provoking, or simply wise once the reader has peered into the depths.”

In 2001 he was named U.S. Poet Laureate, a title he kept until 2003. Collins lives in Somers, New York, and is an English professor at City University of New York, where he has taught for more than 40 years.

Credits for the animations in this talk:

"Budapest," "Forgetfulness" and "Some Days" -- animation by Julian Grey/Head Gear

"The Country" -- animation by Brady Baltezor/Radium

"The Dead" -- animation by Juan Delcan/Spontaneous
 

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