Study Guide

Turtle Introduction

By Kay Ryan

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Turtle Introduction

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.

What is Turtle About and Why Should I Care?

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.

Turtle Resources


"Kay Ryan"
This site provides a basic bio of Kay Ryan (complete with a list of awards as long as your arm). Includes an interesting quotation about Ryan's "compact, exhilarating, strange" poems.

Poet Laureate Website
Kay Ryan served as the nation's Poet Laureate from 2008-2010. The site provides a brief bio. Plus, it's cool to see Ryan rubbing shoulders with all those other amazing poets we know and love!


Poetry Everywhere: "Turtle" by Kay Ryan
Watch Kay Ryan as she reads "Turtle" aloud. How do her tone of voice, facial expressions, or inflections influence your understanding of the poem?

"The Turtle by Kay Ryan"
This video pairs the printed words of the poem with illustrative photographs. Would you have illustrated the images differently? Maybe you should make your own YouTube video!

"Struggling Turtle"
If you listen carefully, you might be able to hear this turtle quoting Winston Churchill under her breath ("Never never never never give up!").

"Is it Modest?"
In this video, Kay Ryan reads aloud her poem "Is it Modest?". Do you see any connections between the meaning of "modest" in this poem and the meaning of the word in line 7 of "Turtle"? This video also provides a nice glimpse of Ryan's dry sense of humor.

Newshour with Jim Lehrer
When introducing her poem "Things Shouldn't Be So Hard," Kay Ryan explains that the poem was inspired by her mother's "modest" life. There's that word again! Ryan also reflects on how her family background has influenced her poetry.

With Atsuro Riley
Kay Ryan discusses her poems and development as a poet. Lots of deadpan humor! She explains her view of rhyme ("how words call to each other"), describing words as "immigrants who like it here and want to bring their families."

Tortoise Helps Friend
Kay Ryan's turtle really should get the phone number of the tortoise in this video. Could definitely come in handy!


"Abusing Animals in the Name of Poetry"
In this audio interview, Kay Ryan reads and discusses "Turtle," noting her "favorite all-time rhyme" and commenting on the "smashed-up sound and imagery" of the poem.

A Reading By Ryan
Here's Kay Ryan reading, starting with an unpublished poem about a cat!


Serious Kay
Here she is, deep in thought (it looks like, anyway).

Happier Kay!
We don't know about you. To us, though, this photo gives us a clue about her humor.

When you read "Turtle," does your mental image of the turtle look like any of these turtles? Or do you picture more of a "cartoon" turtle (see "Brain Snacks")?

Articles & Interviews

"The Pigheaded Soul: Kay Ryan's Collected Poems 1965-2035"
This article is a review of a recent collection of Kay Ryan's poems. For the reviewer, Jason Guriel, Ryan's poetic style has the bracing effect of "smelling salts."

"I Go to AWP" by Kay Ryan
Kay Ryan impishly describes her experience attending a writers' conference. "There is something inherently Monty Pythonish about panels," she says. "The set-up is perfect for farce: starched rigidity […] combined with a thrumming undercurrent of over-civilized competition." The essay also contains some serious reflections on the poetry writing process.

"Laugh While You Can: A Consideration of Poetry" by Kay Ryan
In this brilliant essay, Kay Ryan analyzes humor in poetry, commenting on her own poems as well as famous works by other poets such as Frost and Dickinson. Here is just one of many wonderful nuggets. "I am sure that there is a giggly aquifer under poetry […] I do not want to suggest in any way that this aquifer […] is something silly or undangerous."

"Kay Ryan, The Art of Poetry No. 94"
Interviewed by Sarah Fay, Kay Ryan offers us some of her most memorable comments on poetry, including references to clown suitcases, glow-in-the-dark bunnies, cartoons, clichés, and naked brains.


The Best of It: New and Selected Poems
"Turtle" has lots of other animals to keep her company in this collection of Kay Ryan's poetry, published in 2010. The turtle's circle of friends includes goats, flamingos, snakes, deer, horses, cats, ospreys, sharks, and elephants.

Elephant Rocks
This collection of poetry boasts another animal-themed title by Kay Ryan.

Flamingo Watching
So does this!

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