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An Analysis of the Poem 'Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun in the House' by Billy Collins

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Billy Collins

Billy Collins

Billy Collins and a Summary of 'Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun in the House'

'Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun in the House' is a lengthy, heavy title for what turns out to be a light, imaginative poem. As you read through, you discover no further mention of a gun; the narrative takes you into a common domestic scene with a barking dog and annoyed neighbor.

Billy Collins, one time poet laureate, has fun with a subject that could get others bogged down in controversy and the gun law debate. But his nimble approach to what is a deep, emotional issue for many in America succeeds because he allows the speaker free rein to wander off at a tangent into the realm of the imagination.

And once there, the poem really takes off, twisting and turning as none other than Beethoven, the classical composer, becomes an integral part of the proceedings. Man, dog and music then compete for the speaker's attention and the reader's feelings.

So this poem isn't so much about guns, it's about pets, specifically dogs, and what we do with them when we go out to work, when we neglect them and potentially damage our relationship with them.

The question then has to be asked: Why did the poet choose to use such an emotive title? Out of all the reasons why not to keep a gun in the house, how come a poem about a barking dog and Beethoven is the reason?

The answer has to lie outside of the poem. The answer lies in the effects such a poem might have on the reader.

As Billy Collins himself says:

'There's mystery in the ordinary. I want to start with some ordinary experience around me and use that as a gate of departure.'

'Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun in the House'

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

'Another Reason Why I Don't Keep A Gun in the House' Analysis

Take your time and read through the poem at least twice before taking notes. Jot down any important phrases and words you come across, make a mental note of changes, rhymes, devices, anything that you don't understand.

Note the repetition in the first three lines - barking, barking, bark, barks and the steady rhythm, which is mostly iambic, which takes you onto line 4 and the poet's use of comedy/sarcasm to cover the incessant noise of the dog.

The speaker repeats a full sentence to emphasise the persistent dog next door and then the narrative, in first person I, logically follows a sequence of attempts to drown out the barking. All to no avail. The dog can still be heard.

  • Stanza 3 is the turning point for the poem as the speaker now imagines the dog as orchestra member, a quantum leap for the reader. And no doubt the dog.

In the end, the dog wins so to speak, he completely takes over both orchestra and domestic space of the speaker and is endorsed by none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.

This cartoon-like image is vivid and ridiculous but helps to reinforce the idea that the speaker will just have to put up with this noisy canine. If only there was a gun handy?

Tone of the Poem

How are your feelings affected as you read through this poem? Do you have sympathy for the speaker who is having to endure the dog barking yet again? The first sentence suggests a degree of impatience...will not stop...and the fact that the speaker mentions the same high, rhythmic bark means he's so tuned into that dog, so fed up with the bark he knows so well.

Perhaps the speaker feels increasing frustration at the thought of the neighbors leaving their dog alone. He becomes annoyed enough to dream up a surreal situation, to offset the negative feelings by inventing this cartoony scenario of a dog in an orchestra.

Poetic Devices Used

Within a rough iambic pentameter template in a free verse poem, there is assonance:

muffled/music, part/barking,

And consonance between lines, noting the hard c:


Repetition of certain words helps to bring home the idea that this speaker is already familiar with the situation of the barking dog and absent neighbors.

And personification, appearing in the third stanza, when the dog is seen as being part of the orchestra, barking out a solo performance.

Themes Explored in the Poem

  • Guns and Gun Law - the title clearly sets out the speaker's point of view but the body of the poem has no direct connection to weaponry.
  • Pets - is it right to leave a dog alone in a house time after time? What should a neighbor do if they know a pet is being neglected?
  • Neighbors - living close to other people isn't always easy. How should we treat those we live communally with?
  • Control - how to stay calm and collected when things are getting out of hand.
  • Creativity - use of imagination to help manage time and space.

What Is the Diction?

The poet uses mostly ordinary language in this poem, setting off in an almost casual manner, as if the speaker is on the phone with someone, or making a formal complaint to the authorities.

There's a matter-of-fact kind of approach from the speaker which continues on into stanza three when the imaginative leap sees the dog become part of the orchestra, yet the language and delivery hardly alter:

barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,

It's as if the speaker is forced into this situation of imagining the dog-in-orchestra-scenario, to avoid extreme annoyance, a self-help mechanism that helps alleviate mental suffering.

The language is mostly unexceptional, sufficient for the basic form and meter.

There are two words that need explanation. Entreating means to seriously urge or ask someone to do something - so the conductor is waving his baton at the dog in order to get the best solo out of him.

And the word coda in this context means the end piece to a body of music. The dog's solo is the coda, the speaker sarcastically attributing it to Beethoven.

What Is the Meaning?

A dog is supposed to be man's best friend but in the poem, the incessant barking of this possibly neglected pet forces the speaker to react. As we read we can imagine the pent-up annoyance, the helplessness, the anger.

There's a little dig at the neighbors too by the suggestion that they switch the dog on, like a machine. Could it be that paranoia is creeping into the mindset?

What can the speaker do? Little it seems in practical terms. This dog will bark and bark and bark until someone does something about it. The only solution is to let go of the negative, find no fault in the dog, and transform the noisy barking into a musical solo.

Voila! End of problem.

Not quite. The dog continues, encouraged by a make-believe conductor and phantom Beethoven. When will this horrible barking ever stop?

Now we begin to understand the title of the poem. With a gun in the house perhaps there would have been an easy solution. Shoot the dog? Surely not, how awful. What about the speaker shooting himself? Terrible.

Is this poem all tongue in cheek? Is a humorous approach the best way to solve a problem? Laugh it all off? How seriously should we take that title and is the poem itself strong enough to carry the weight?


100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

© 2016 Andrew Spacey