excerpt from Jack Foley's "Visions & Affiliations, A California Literary Timeline" re: Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9
• 1962 - Robert Sward’s Uncle Dog is published by Putnam (UK). This is the title poem: “Uncle Dog: The Poet at 9.” Dogs will continue to be important figures—even to act as muses—in
Sward’s work throughout his career.
I did not want to be old Mr.
Garbage man, but uncle dog
who rode sitting beside him.
Uncle dog had always looked
to me to be truck-strong
wise-eyed, a cur-like Ford
Of a dog. I did not want
to be Mr. Garbage man because
all he had was cans to do.
Uncle dog sat there me-beside-him
emptying nothing. Barely even
looking from garbage side to side:
Like rich people in the backseats
of chauffeur-cars, only shaggy
in an unwagging tall-scrawny way.
Uncle dog belonged any just where
he sat, but old Mr. Garbage man
had to stop at every single can.
I thought. I did not want to be Mr.
Everybody calls them that first.
A dog is said, Dog! Or by name.
I would rather be called Rover
than Mr. And sit like a tough
smart mongrel beside a garbage man.
Uncle dog always went to places
unconcerned, without no hurry.
Independent like some leashless
Toot. Honorable among scavenger
can-picking dogs. And with a bitch
at every other can. And meat:
His for the barking. Oh, I wanted
to be uncle dog—sharp, high fox-
eared, cur-Ford truck-faced
With his pick of the bones.
A doing, truckman’s dog
and not a simple child-dog
Nor friend to man, but an uncle
traveling, and to himself—
and a bitch at every second can.
Jack Foley writes,
I came upon “Uncle Dog” in the early sixties. I was at Cornell University, where Sward
was teaching. The poet who wrote that poem had been reading E.E. Cummings—and one
noticed that—but, at the same time, there was something striking and new about what he was
doing. You wouldn’t know from that poem (or from the book) that Robert Sward was
Jewish—those themes came later—but his origins in the North Side of Chicago are right
The speaker of this poem is clearly a city-dweller—nothing pastoral in his vision. Who
had ever had thought to write a poem about a garbage truck—and about a mean, “tough” dog,
no “friend to man”? Indeed, the speaker identifies himself not with the man but with the
animal: “I would rather be called Rover / than Mr.” The speaker, a child, has no power, yet
he sees power in the figure of that dog, and he wants it.
Power is to have “your pick of the bones” and “a bitch at every second can.” Power is to be self-sufficient, to belong “any just where / [you] sat.” Power is the capacity to be noticed in a situation in which almost everything around you is garbage. The poem is comic but edgy, problematical; mythic but contemporary; alert but accepting: this, it seems to say, is the way the world is. It is not a world of beauty but a world of power, a world in which some people have things and others do not.
And it is a world in which power manifests not in the commonly accepted and
respectable (“I did not want to be Mr.”) but in something else—something nonhuman. One
thinks a little of Robinson Jeffers’ vision in “Roan Stallion”—another poem in which power
and animal are to some degree equated:
Humanity is the mould to break away from, the crust to
break through, the coal to break into fire,
The atom to be split.
Tragedy that breaks man’s face
and a white fire flies out of it; vision that fools him
Out of his limits, desire that fools him out of his limits,
unnatural crime, inhuman science,
Slit eyes in the mask; wild loves that leap over the walls
At the same time, of course, the only genuine power the poet has is the power of words,
and “Uncle Dog” is a symbol of that as well.
Causes Robert Sward Supports
Audubon Society, National Geographic, "Green," the Environment, SPCA...