"Turtle" is written in free verse. Kay Ryan has a simple explanation for why she doesn't use formal rhyme schemes or traditional metrical patterns. "I don't have the gift for it," she says. "For me, it would be like wearing the wrong clothes."
Even though "Turtle" isn't wearing any of those formal clothes (which is probably just as well—prom dresses aren't that flattering for turtles), the poem has its own kind of structure. "Turtle" is a short, tightly-constructed poem, just fifteen lines long, and many of the lines are about the same length. In poetry, every detail matters, even the shape that a printed poem makes on the page. When she finishes writing a poem, Ryan says she's happy when the printed words on the page look like "a black Ace comb, with slightly jagged teeth."
Ryan is famous for her use of slant rhyme, in which the matching sounds are approximate rather than precise. "Turtle" is full of slant rhymes, and they are often tucked into the middle of lines instead of the ends (for example, "graceless" and "places" in lines 5-6, or "ditch" "dish" in lines 10-11). Ryan calls this technique "recombinant rhyme." (To find out why this technique is like glow-in-the-dark bunnies, see the "Sound Check" section. How's that for a plug?)
Ryan is also known for her frequent use of enjambment —continuing one line of verse into the next line without any punctuation mark—and almost half of the fifteen lines of "Turtle" are enjambed. This technique contributes to the conversational tone of the poem, as the lines move freely to reflect the rhythm of the speaker's thoughts.
Enjambment also reinforces the meaning of specific lines of the poem. Consider, for example, lines 5 through 7 of "Turtle." Have you ever tried to drag something heavy? After dragging it for a while, you pause to gather your strength before dragging it some more. At the end of line 5, the turtle metaphorically drags a "packing-case" into the next line, only to lose steam a few words later, as the comma forces a pause midway through the next line.
Line 6 also continues without a pause at the end, as the final word "slope" falls right into the word "defeats" in the next line. In this way, enjambment reinforces the sense of emotional letdown, as if the turtle is sliding back down a slope that is too steep for her.