All the Tired Horses in the Sun

Joy Harjo

‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ by Joy Harjo is a short but deeply somber poem that seeks to express an all too potent existential exhaustion felt by indigenous communities.

Joy Harjo

Nationality: American

Joy Harjo is a major American poet who was chosen as poet laureate of the United States.

She’s the first Native American to hold that position.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: An expression of the dogged misery and persistence that defines indigenous life

Speaker: An indigenous person

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Hopelessness, Resilience

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 21st Century

Joy Harjo's use of concise but vivid imagery and a characteristic symbolism centering on horses to write a poem that conjures up a withering impression of a life marked by fatigue.

‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ is a short poem that sighs over life’s oppressive monotony. One that uses a handful of snapshots of indigenous life to articulate the perpetuity of their desperate existence. Joy Harjo’s imagery is fragmentary but concrete, linking the strife experienced by Indigenous Americans with that of the wearied horses enduring the sun.


‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ by Joy Harjo is a poem about the existential exhaustion felt by indigenous communities and the generational effects of their historical oppression.

‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ is comprised of four distinct images that are separated by a repetitive echo of variations on the word “forever.” The first sight described by the speaker is one of their family: “There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle. / Another cousin.” The second focuses on the food they eat and drink, mostly junk food and snacks: “Vending machines and pop. / Chips, candy, and not enough clean water.”

The speaker then expresses a cyclical weariness over waiting. The poem ends with a single command issued by the speaker to some unknown party — perhaps even themselves. “Go water the horses,” they order.

Structure and Form

‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ is a free verse poem comprised of one stanza defined by its curt, single-sentence lines. In terms of its structure, the poem contains a refrain — “Forever. / And ever. / And ever” (1-3) — that repeats a total of three times. In between these clustered repetitions, Harjo inserts her vividly concise imagery.

Literary Devices

‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ contains examples of the following literary devices:

  • Kinesthetic Imagery: an illustration of movement or action, as in the command, “Go water the horses” (17).
  • Visual Imagery: “There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle. / Another cousin” (4-5) envisions the speaker’s family; “Vending machines and pop. / Chips, candy, and not enough clean water” (9-10) visualizes the food and drinks available to the community.
  • Symbolism: Harjo uses the “horses” to represent the indigenous experience.
  • Anaphora: repetition of the first part of a line, such as the phrase, “And ever. / And ever” (2-3, 7-8, 15-16).
  • Antimetabole: the repetition of a phrase but inversed, as with “Waiting and tired. / Tired of waiting” (12-13).

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-8

And ever.
And ever.
There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle.

The opening lines of ‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ begins this cycle of repetition that reverberates throughout the poem. “Forever / And ever. / And ever” (1-3) the poem begins, imbuing what’s about to be related with the quality of being eternal.

The speaker then points out members of their family — “There’s my cousin. Auntie. Uncle. / Another cousin” (4-5) — each individual image appearing sans any visual scenery. Harjo’s curt syntax further punctuates familial images in the reader’s mind.

She then frames this list of relatives with an echo of the poem’s opening lines, as if her cousins or aunts and uncles reverberate throughout time. One interpretation is that the repetition of “forever” illustrates the ways in which a tediously bleak existence can start to feel like an eternity.

Lines 9-11

Vending machines and pop.

In the next series of lines from ‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun,’ the speaker offers up another image that also resounds within eternity. Here the mood starts to teeter between nostalgia and bleak dreariness as they invoke the image of “vending machines and pop. / Chips, candy, and not enough clean water” (9-10). The first half of this image might be perceived as slightly positive, offering fond memories of the immediate gratification of junk food offered by vending machines, especially as a child.

Yet the list of snacks ends despondently with the jarring mention that the speaker and their family don’t have access to something as essential as clean water. A juxtaposition made all the more impactful by a new variation of the refrain — “And ever, ever, ever” (11) — that only intensifies the sense that such injustice is stiflingly pervasive and unending.

Lines 12-17

Waiting and tired.
Tired of waiting.

‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun’ ends with the speaker explicitly characterizing the dismal mood that’s been an undercurrent within the poem. “Waiting and tired. / Tired of waiting” (12-13), they sigh, Harjo using antimetabole to amplify the deep exhaustion expressed by the speaker.

Unsurprisingly, as the opening three lines are repeated one last time, even the fatigue is eternal. The final line also includes a mention of the titular equines as the speaker issues a command to “go water the horses” (17). Like everything and everyone that calls this landscape home, they all suffer under an inexorable sun with little choice or chance of relief.

Yet, the act of watering the horses offers some sign of compassion and hope within this arid purgatory, especially given how scarce the speaker’s access to clean water is. So using some of what little they have to alleviate the discomfort of the horses emphasizes just how important such respite is.


What is the theme of ‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun?

Ultimately, the theme of the poem is rooted in articulating the perpetual desperation of indigenous communities. Commenting not just on the lack of support or infrastructure, leading to disparities in quality of life, but also the pervading sense that longstanding suffering is ingrained in the identity of Indigenous Americans.

Why did Joy Harjo write ‘All the Tired Horses in the Sun?

The poem was commissioned to be part of a book of collected artwork by the indigenous (Kiowa/Caddo) painter and poet T.C. Cannon. Specifically, it is dedicated to his captivating painting “Mama and Papa Have the Going Home Shiprock Blues” (1966), which depicts an elderly Navajo man and woman sitting for a portrait, dressed in both traditional clothes and strikingly stylish sunglasses. The poem appears to express the painting’s implied tension between indigenous communities and the modernity that further isolates them.

How is repetition significant to the poem?

The poem’s ceaseless repetition of variations of “forever” stresses that the people, animals, and things observed are trapped in an inescapable limbo. One that extends across lifetimes and generations.

What is the poem’s tone?

The tone of the poem is influenced by Harjo’s short sentence structure and precise diction. Everything from the lack of glee over the listing of the speaker’s relatives to their lucid expressions of weariness creates this pervading sense of hopelessness.

Similar Poems

Poetry+ Review Corner

All the Tired Horses in the Sun

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Joy Harjo (poems)

Joy Harjo

This poem by Joy Harjo is a great example of the poet's penchant for experimenting with style and form. Through the use of both repetition and succinct imagery, she creates an impactful portrait of the lives and existence of Indigenous people, one that highlights with quiet devastation the desperate and everlasting pain that is synonymous with their lives.
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21st Century

Joy Harjo is an important 21st-century poet whose poetry is defined by Indigenous experiences; making poems like this one is crucial to understanding the lives of such a marginalized group. Her style brings together modern elements such as free verse and prose poetry, as well as that of her culture and experiences as an Indigenous woman.
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Joy Harjo is a Muscogee-American poet from Tulsa, OK. Born in 1951, she became the first Indigenous person to serve as a U.S. poet-laureate. As a result, her poems have helped uplift the voices of other Indigenous writers like herself while also giving voice to their experiences in America regarding identity and the generational effects of colonialism.
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Throughout Joy Harjo's poem, there is this unspoken desire that is implied in between the speaker's repetitions of eternity and descriptions of scenery. This desire might be expressed or defined in a variety of ways depending on one's interpretation of the poem, but it centers on this need for escape or reprieve. The poem's final image and command to "water the horses" is a distillation of that theme.
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Disappointment is another theme expressed throughout Joy Harjo's poem. This feeling is palpable in the speaker's exhaustion, which is rooted both in an existential feeling as well as the conditions they find themselves in. The quip about not having enough clean water points to the bleak living circumstances indigenous people are forced to contend with.
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Another theme in Joy Harjo's poem deals with this idea of wellness. Between its familial imagery and snapshots of life, the poem is buoyed against this physical and emotional barrenness. This is also emphasized in the poem's final lines, as the speaker takes on the role of caretaker in providing rejuvenation to the horses by watering them.
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Joy Harjo's poem expresses a number of different emotions, and one of them is a sense of anxiety. The endless repetitions that emphasize eternity help develop this feeling, as they imply that the desolation and exhaustion felt by the speaker and those around them will never cease. There are also more tangible real-world anxieties, which include not having enough clean water.
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Hopelessness is another emotion revealed in Joy Harjo's poem. It is perhaps the most acute feeling presented therein, although it is not explicitly stated. From the various repetitions to the speaker's resigned tone, the poem reveals that life's ability to weary people is profound, to say the least. Although some hope of respite is possible, it will not last forever.
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Although Joy Harjo's poem hones in on the dire experiences of indigenous people, it also presents them as fundamentally resilient. The poet's constant repetition illustrates this, revealing the ways in which they've survived generations of trauma but still persist. It might be hard to derive hope from such experiences, but the poem does imply a certain resilience to withering.
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Joy Harjo's poem illustrates an impression of life amongst an indigenous community. The speaker describes various aspects from their family to the vending machines that offer up junk food as snacks. Within the poem, the community is depicted as struggling, burdened by this endless waiting for a reprieve.
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Solitude is another topic touched on within Joy Harjo's poem. Although the speaker is describing the community they live in, their hyper-focus on only individual elements gives the effect of isolating each person and thing from the others. The poet's syntax is also emblematic of this motif, introducing each member of the speaker's family with monotonal abruptness.
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Time is another topic prominently explored in Joy Harjo's poem. The repetitive invocations of eternity imply that the speaker and those around them have long suffered beneath the weight of this exhaustion. Here, such longevity appears more as a torment than a blessing, though it also speaks to the way that generations have suffered in a similar way.
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One of the few direct expressions of sentiment in Joy Harjo's poem comes with the speaker's confession that they are "Waiting and tired. / Tired of waiting." This feeling is juxtaposed by the poem's refrain, which seems to doom the speaker and everyone they know to a lifetime of waiting. Waiting for what? An escape.
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Free Verse

Joy Harjo typically writes in free verse, using no formal rhyme scheme or meter. This poem uses that liberating style to create its own cadence through the poet's incessant repetition and staccato-like imagery. All the lines are also end-stopped, bringing the reader to an abrupt halt with each one.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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