by Kay Ryan
Like most of Kay Ryan's poetry, "Turtle" is written in the third person, and the speaker remains unidentified. Sometimes charged with writing "anti-confessional" verse, Ryan acknowledges that she prefers to write personal poems "in such a way that nobody has to know it." Ah ha! Could this disclosure provide a clue about the speaker of "Turtle"? At the very least, the comment suggests that the life of the turtle may somehow reflect the "personal" experience of the speaker, whoever he or she may be.
So let's see what other clues we can gather about this unknown speaker. Well, based on the first line of the poem, you might notice that this speaker seems kind of grumpy. If you've ever felt grumpy yourself (come on, 'fess up), then you know it's tempting to take it out on the people around you, using your bad mood as an excuse to diss someone else (an annoying brother or sister, perhaps?). So maybe the turtle is just a convenient target for the speaker's frustration.
If so, the speaker certainly gets wound up about it. After that first harsh remark in the opening line, the speaker spends the rest of the poem describing the many drawbacks of being a turtle. In the process, the speaker lightens up a little, using some humorous images, but it's unclear whether the humor is intended as a put-down or not.
As a reader, you can decide for yourself whether the speaker is just annoyed with the turtle for being a turtle or mad at the world for making the turtle's life so difficult. There are some signs that the speaker's attitude may be more protective than aggressive, more empathetic than judgmental. For example, words such as "modest hopes" and "patience" suggest compassion rather than contempt.
If "Turtle" is, in fact, a "personal" poem—a poem that reflects and invites exploration of personal experience—then it may be instructive to place yourself in the imaginative shoes of the speaker. Maybe the speaker isn't really talking about a turtle at all. Maybe the speaker is talking about why she feels like a turtle. And that's a whole other can of worms—tasty enough to a turtle who doesn't ask much from life, but maybe not so palatable for people.
Have you ever had a day when you felt like Ryan's turtle? A day when nothing seemed to be going your way, when you felt blocked at every turn, when you felt exposed and vulnerable and thwarted and alone? Maybe the poem can help us figure out how to patiently endure those turtle days, how to move each clumsy foot forward, forgive the world and ourselves, and go on.