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Cow Be Killed

The Holmes collection contains a number of drafts of this poem which first appeared in Poetry in 1954, and subsequently in The Fortune Teller.

Holmes commented on the origins of the poem in Volume 25 of his scrapbooks, on page 144:

Myron Files had written in a letter in the summer that there ought to be a family ritual to be used upon killing a cow the family had come to know well, give a name to, and love, as a way of asking forgiveness.

I know little about cows, and care less, yet the idea struck me, and I undertook to provide it. Two things about its development interested and surprised me. I found myself making deprecatory yet tender epithets for the cow, like "you snorter," "my dumb big ambling life," and "sweet old maunderer," as if to placate the animal, and by a tone of voice, so to speak, ask forgiveness. The other thing was that although I did not really have this feeling about a cow, and although I believed, or was pretty sure I believe, that for greater animals to kill and eat lesser animals is a biological necessity, a chain that cannot be broken, I was putting into this poem about killing a cow a plea for forgiveness for all the killing man does of his own kind. There has been so much of it that guilt is never wholly absent in any of us. In this way, by an implication unstated, and perhaps quite unguessed at by any reader, this poem now seems to me to touch on an emotion of deep and special meaning for our times. But of course, nothing of that is said outright.

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Listen to a recording of the published version of "Cow Be Killed":
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Acknowledgements Tufts University Tisch Library Digital Collections and Archives

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