A brief lesson in animal husbandry before I get to poetry: Sheep and goats were some of the first animals domesticated by humans (chickens were in there, too), which makes a lot of sense. They work very well for both a nomadic and a more sedentary agricultural lifestyle. Certainly, they are what farmers call "easy keepers:" low maintenance and high return.
However, sheep have gotten a bum rap for stupidity. Unlike their wily goat cousins, who are perpetually plotting mischief, sheep take a very dharmic approach to things: if it doesn't affect me, why worry? Rather than stupid, they are incurious. If they come to a locked gate, they just turn around and head off in another direction (again,unlike goats, who are the Houdinis of livestock and who, once free, will tap-dance across the hood of your car with gay abandon on the way to ransacking your tomato plants). Sheep have actually been rated above cows and slightly below pigs on animal intelligence tests (although I must admit being unclear how one tests the intelligence of farm animals. None of them seem capable of higher math).
The issue is that sheep are on almost everyone's menu. To survive, they must react instantaneously to a threat, perceived or real. Their philosophy is "run away now; ask questions later." They don't have much of a defense arsenal beyond this, other than glaring and stamping (once I went into the barn wearing a billowing peasant skirt that totally freaked them out. They had never seen me like that before, and they refused come near me. Instead they stood at the other end of the pen, bug-eyed, stamping like woolly flamenco dancers: go away, go away!) or bunching up in a corner if they're trapped and can't run. This last actually makes a lot of evolutionary sense. Predators like wolves and lions operate by isolating and stalking an individual, hoping to separate it from the herd and pounce on it. When a whole herd is crowded together, it is very difficult to see where one sheep ends and another begins. Bunching significantly improves the survival chances of any particular sheep.
Sheep can learn things. Mine know their names (Ike and Izzy); what the grain bucket means; when it's my car pulling in the driveway and when it isn't (I'm the caretaker and dispenser of sheep treats). They also can be taught to walk on a lead and to pull a cart. They are friendly and talkative and like to get their ears rubbed. They are soft, and they don't smell. It's easy to see why they have been part of the human experience for thousands of years.
Consequently, there are lots and lots of references to sheep in literature and art. I did some quick research online. Biblically, we've got three sheep metaphors that are repeated throughout the texts: the 23rd Psalm version of Godly people as sheep, trusting in their shepherd; Jesus as "The Lamb of God:" gentle, obedient, loving; and the black sheep, the one who breaks away from the flock and trips the light fantastic in the big city. In children's literature, there's Mary and her little lamb; Lambert the Sheepish Lion, who thinks he's a sheep and ends up saving the flock from a wolf, so he probably doesn't really count; and I'm sure lots more but I want to get to modern and contemporary poetry.
A quick Google of "sheep poems" finds a lot of awful doggerel, but also some good stuff from the 20th century. Sheep are used as a trigger for existential angst in Sylvia Plath's poem, "Sheep in Fog." James Dickey infamously gives a voice to "The Sheep-Child," a poem that makes Ike and Izzy very, very nervous. And Russell Edson has some fun with the expression "Counting Sheep" in his poem of the same title:
A scientist has a test tube full of sheep. He
wonders if he should try to shrink a pasture
They are like grains of rice.
He wonders if is possible to shrink something
out of existence.
He wonders if the sheep are aware of their tininess,
if they have any sense of scale. Perhaps they think
the test tube is a glass barn...
He wonders what he should do with them: they
certainly have less meat and wool than ordinary
sheep. Has he reduced their commercial value?
He wonders if they could be used as a substitute
for rice, a sort of woolly rice...
He wonders if he shouldn't rub them into a red paste
between his fingers.
He wonders if they are breeding, or if any of them
He puts them under a microscope, and falls asleep
from The Tunnel: Selected Poems, Oberlin College Press, 1994
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I'd love to hear if you know of any other cool sheep poems. I'll be posting my own version -- I don't know how cool it is, but hey, they said I could post pretty much whatever I wanted.