Little kids love to pretend they're animals. They delight in flapping their wings or tossing their manes or flexing their claws. Many of us actually never outgrow that love of animals. Watching a bird fly overhead, we can't help but imagine ourselves surfing those currents of air. (Pop quiz: If you could be any animal, which animal would you choose to be?)
In her poem "Turtle," Kay Ryan turns this question on its head, identifying the turtle as an animal that people wouldn't choose to be. "Who would be a turtle who could help it?" demands the poem's speaker. Through a startling series of word pictures, the remainder of the poem goes on to show us why the life of a turtle is so tough and unenviable.
When she published "Turtle" in 1994, Ryan was 49 years old. A slow starter, she did not even start writing poetry until she was 30, and like the turtle in her poem, had only "modest hopes" of success. Yet, she persevered, eventually earning the respect of a literary establishment that initially discounted her work. In 2008 she was appointed the nation's Poet Laureate.
Ryan acknowledges that she wrote "Turtle" during a time of personal frustration. That sentiment is certainly present in the poem, which describes the turtle's awkward struggle merely to eat and not be eaten. As readers, we can't help identifying with this clumsy creature, despite the speaker's warnings not to get involved.
But frustration isn't the only emotion the tale of the turtle evokes. Rather, the poet's concoction of whimsical images and meaning-packed words creates a unique emotional chemistry. What emotions do you experience when you read "Turtle"? Those feelings may tell you something interesting about yourself, not to mention the turtle.
Remember Aesop's fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare? While the boastful, over-confident rabbit pauses for a nap, the turtle perseveres, plodding to victory. Moral: Slow and steady progress wins the race. On the one hand, you have to love it. Who doesn't enjoy rooting for the underdog (or, in this case, the under-turtle)? On the other hand, doesn't "slow" seem just a little, well, boring?
In Kay Ryan's poem "Turtle," boredom is the least of the turtle's problems. This solitary creature is struggling simply to survive, and it's a lonely business. She must make or break it on her own. Come to think of it, the same might be said for human beings. Though ours is a social species, nobody can live your life for you. And some days, life can seem awfully hard.
So, is this, like, a really depressing poem? If so, the turtle lovers among us might be a little put off. Shmoop, for one, thinks turtles are actually pretty cute, so we're not sure about the Debby Downer attitude. Not to worry, though. There's another side to Kay Ryan—a funny side. In fact, she's one of those rare poets who know how to be serious and funny at the same time. "With my work," says Ryan, "you have to always think there's a smidgen of laughter in it, however sad it might be, however lonely or lost. If you feel worse after you've read it, then I've failed."
So take the poet at her word, and test out the poem for yourself. Does the image of the turtle as a "four-oared helmet" tickle your funny bone just a bit? By the end of the poem, are you smiling or frowning? As you explore these questions, take care to avoid the rabbit's mistake: don't underestimate that turtle. Some days we all feel like losers, but the turtle in Aesop's fable didn't end up as a loser, and maybe—just maybe—the turtle in Kay Ryan's poem won't either.