English Gedichte

The Position of the Pug in Poetry

Although a well-known presence in German poetry, in English the pug (German: Mops) is rather underappreciated, which is regrettable. German comedian and film director Loriot famously said: »A life without pug is possible, yet pointless.« Somewhat surprisingly, or so it seems, Loriot didn’t leave us any pug poetry – maybe because he was kept busy by his real-life pugs?

Poetry without pug, while maybe not utterly pointless, lacks a certain zest. The case in point is the German poem that started it all (the Ur-pug, so to say). It goes back to an anonymous ditty with roots in the 19th century that, however, only found its purpose and pug in the early parts of the 20th century, as earlier versions do not feature a pug and instead tell us about the fate of a wholly featureless, vapid dog.

This poor cousin of the pug poem is what Bertolt Brecht and Samuel Beckett came across. In Brecht’s 1922 play Drums in the Night a certain Kragler sings: »Ein Hund ging in die Küche …«. Beckett must have heard that same song, and remembered it when writing Waiting for Godot in the late 1940s and he duely translated it, first into French and then into English as: »A dog came in the kitchen and stole a crust of bread …«

A dog, of course, does nothing for us. What is it: A lapdog, a dane, a mongrel? How are we to imagine it – and isn’t it the poet’s job to do the imagining for us? – Right. Thus, in my translation of the final version (there are minor variations thereof) a pug is entering the kitchen – voilà:

Exhibit A

A Pug Snuck in the Kitchen

A pug snuck in the kitchen
and stole the cook’s green beans.
The cook, he took his ladle,
smashed it to smithereens.

Many a pug paid tribute,
helped dig the dead pug’s grave,
and they put up a gravestone
and this is what it said:

„A pug snuck in the kitchen
and stole the cook’s green beans.
The cook, he took his ladle,
smashed it to smithereens.“
… … …

Once this had caught on, and after the War and all of that had been done with, it was time for the next masterpiece, this time no longer anonymous but by the Austrian Ernst Jandl. His ottos mops (1970) is one of the best-known and most anthologised German poems of the 20th century, and translations have been attempted a number of times, for example by Elizabeth MacKiernan, whose rendering (including the German original) can be found here, and by others such as Brian Murdoch, Katy Derbyshire, Walter Barkan and Alexander Sager – all available here.

While these versions all have their merits and all try to stay true to Jandl’s formal device, they are very free adaptations indeed, yet their most serious flaw is (with the exeption of Alexander Sager’s) that they are pugless and thus quite pointless.

My translation not only fixes this omission, it also stays rather close to Jandl’s original phrasing.

Exhibit B

anna’s pug

anna’s pug sucks
anna: tut-tut, pug
anna’s pug pulls mug
anna: what’s up

anna lugs spuds
anna lugs nuts
anna shrugs
anna: pug pug
anna clucks

anna’s pug bugs
anna: what pug what
anna’s pug walks up
anna’s pug pukes
anna: shucks yuck

Which leaves the question – what’s next for the literary pug? I have no doubt that it’s future is bright. Let it enter the English canon and let it set out with this, my own humble effort:

Exhibit C



looks up
struts stuff
woof woof

pug roughs
cuffs socks
coughs fluff
plucks rug
puffs chaff

pug quits
hits road
no leash
no lead
no sweets
just crud
and mud
good luck

loud sound
pug pricks
up ears
prop gun’s
pops stun
dogs run
for house
pug stays
pug says
no gun
just prop

pug meets
pug props
mug on paw
lets get
some grub

pugs eat grub
pugs eat bug
pugs lick floor
pugs eat fob
pug eats pug
pug eats door
pug eats knob
pug throws up



Mops pug - text collage

Graphic: Martin Bartholmy (a hi-res version is available here).


A reader from Cologne was so good to point out that one important exhibit was missing from the series, namely Christian Morgenstern’s poem Mopsenleben. – So here it is:

A Pug’s Life

Pugs like to squat atop the corner of a wall,
from where on high the streetscape they’ll eyeball,

because from perches thus advantageous
they may behold the worldly, the rampageous.

Oh fellow men, beware of such a thrall,
else you will be the pug upon the wall.

(… and here’s the German original):

Es sitzen Möpse gern auf Mauerecken,
die sich ins Straßenbild hinauserstrecken,

um von sotanen vorteilhaften Posten
die bunte Welt gemächlich auszukosten.

O Mensch, lieg vor dir selber auf der Lauer,
sonst bist du auch ein Mops nur auf der Mauer.