Canine embodiment in South African lyric poetry

  • Wendy Woodward University of the Western Cape, Belville
Keywords: dogs, lyric poetry, South African poetry, trans-species


This article discusses South African lyric poetry in English including translations since the 1960s. Rather than being private statements, South African lyrics, like all lyrics, are essentially dialogic—in relation to the philosophical, the political or the psychological. The poems examined here are in dialogue with dogs, their embodiment, their subjectivities, their contiguities with humans. This article considers how trans-species entanglements between human and canine, whether convivial or adversarial, manifest poetically in myriad ways in gendered and/or racialised contexts and analyses how the vulnerabilities of both humans and dogs are made to intersect. Ruth Miller portrays dogs as divine creations who are uncertain and “embarrassed”. Ingrid Jonker’s poems intertwine human and canine, foregrounding gendered vulnerabilities. Where dogs are figured metonymically, entanglements of human and dog break down binary categorisations, in Jonker’s poems as well as in those of other poets. Mongane Wally Serote’s creatural humans, for example, seem both animal and human. Oswald Mtshali figures dogs within apartheid structures as antagonists, protectors or savage scavengers. More recent poems, influenced perhaps by new thinking about the animal subject, imagine dogs in compassionate interspecies connections. Many of these recent elegiac poems, in particular those by Jenna Mervis and Harry Owen, are attentive to beloved dogs but without sentimentality or the imposition of an anthropocentric focus.

Author Biography

Wendy Woodward, University of the Western Cape, Belville

Wendy Woodward is Professor Emerita in the English Department at the University of
the Western Cape where she taught South African literature, Animal Studies and
Creative Writing.


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