Kay Ryan

Turtle by Kay Ryan

‘Turtle’ is a compelling animal poem that is also an allegory for the human experience. The poem alludes to the experience of someone who feels downtrodden or weighed down by obligation and difficulty. The turtle conveys human emotions and often experiences them herself. She is patient, “graceless” and “practical”.

Turtle by Kay Ryan


Summary of Turtle

Turtle‘ by Kay Ryan is a clever and poignant poem that relates the life of a turtle to the lives of all human beings who have felt at one point downtrodden.

Throughout this poem, the poet presents the reader with a series of images that depict a heavy, slow, and clumsy turtle that moves through her life with trouble. She is forced to carry around the weight of her shell wherever she goes, a factor that often contributes to her inability to get food as quickly as she would like to. Despite this, the “helmet” (shell) is the only protection she has. By the end of the poem, after making fun of and criticizing elements of the turtle’s life, the speaker takes a more respectful tone. She acknowledges the turtle struggles and her commendable patience.

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of Turtle 

Turtle’ by Kay Ryan is a fifteen-line poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not choose to structure this piece with a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, this doesn’t mean that the poet is without rhyme or rhythm entirely. In fact, there are numerous examples of half-rhyme within the lines, a technique known as internal rhyme.

Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “graceless” and “places” in lines five and six as well as “slope” and “hopes” in lines six and seven. 


Literary Devices in Turtle 

Ryan makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Turtle’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, personification, and enjambment. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “hard” and “helmet” in line two and “grasses” and “graceless” in lines four and five. There are several other examples as well. 

Next, enjambment is another important technique commonly used in poetry. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. This technique is used throughout ‘Turtle’. For instance, in the transition between lines three and four as well as five and six. 

Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. It can be seen through the poet’s choice to refer to the turtle as “she” and give “her” human characteristics. These include becoming frustrated, tired, acting practically, and being patient. 


Analysis of Turtle 

Lines 1-4

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.

 In the first stanza of ‘Turtle,’ the speaker begins by asking a rhetorical question. Once deconstructed this fairly complicated question boils down to a statement. The speaker is wondering who would choose to be a turtle if they could help it. No one in their right mind, the speaker asserts, would want to be a turtle. The next line to the poem lays out why this is the case. It also starts to go into the various very human attributes that turtles have.

The turtle is “barely mobile“. It is shaped like a hard roll, a tempting snack for predator, and like a “helmet“. The “helmet“ refers to both its shape and the protective qualities of a shell. It is also supposed to be a humorous depiction of the turtle and its survival mechanism. The “four oars“ that the speaker refers to are the turtle’s feet that poke out from underneath the “helmet“. 

The specific turtle that the speaker is considering is a female. The poet refers to the turtle as “she”. This helps the reader sympathize and empathize with the turtle who has as the poem progresses begins to see more and more human. The turtle moves slowly, a factor that enhances the possibility that it’s going to be caught by a predator. But, like all living creatures, including human beings, the turtle cannot live without food.  The speaker describes her “rowing“ in the direction of the food she wants to eat. This refers back to the description of the turtle’s legs as oars. 


Lines 5-9 

Her track is graceless, like dragging


to something edible. With everything optimal,

In the next lines of ‘Turtle,’ the speaker spends more time describing how the turtle moves and the various difficulties that it comes upon as she goes about her day-to-day life. Her track is “graceless”. The poet connects the word “track“ to the word “packing“ through the use of half-rhyme. This brings to mind the image of a traveling case that’s pulled behind a struggling tourist or shopper as they move from place to place. In the same way, a turtle has to pull their shell along with them as they move. It’s a heavy but necessary weight, just like a suitcase. 

The turtle’s life, at this point, seems pitiful and sad. She’s often “stuck up to the axle“ while she’s on her way to something “edible“. A reader should take note again of the additional example of half-rhyme with “edible“ and axle“. These two words are then connected to “optimal“. The turtle’s practicality is one of its characteristics that relate most directly to humans. It is uncommon to hear an animal referred to as “practical“ therefore readers should be able to relate more of their personal life to this turtle’s experiences.


Lines 10-15 

she skirts the ditch which would convert


Her only levity is patience,
the sport of truly chastened things.

Half and full-rhymes continue into the next lines as the speaker describes the turtle skirting the “ditch which would convert / her shell into a serving dish“. There are dangers everywhere that this turtle might run into without meaning to. It is easy enough for the turtle to get stuck in a terrible situation and be transformed into the perfect meal for a lazy predator.

The poet brings back the motif of luck in the twelfth line. It relates back to the third line in which the speaker describes how the turtle has to take chances with everything that she does. The turtle lives below “luck level“ never thinking that anything is going to change enough to transform her life. It is at this point with the introduction of the word “lottery“ that it should become quite obvious that the poet is creating an allegory. Any reader should be able to feel the turtle struggle and how it relates to human existence. Everyone has felt out of luck, hopeless, and downtrodden.

In the last two lines of the poem, the speaker brings in the only kind words that are used in reference to the turtle. Her only “levity” is her patience. The word “levity” is related to “lightness” creating an interesting juxtaposition between the heaviness that the speaker previously asserted about the turtle’s existence and this final complementary line.

She is usually clumsy and slow but her patience makes her lighter. She is able to bear the various hardships that were outlined in the previous sections of the poem. In the final line, the poet stops making fun of and picking at the turtle and instead takes on a more respectful tone. The speaker acknowledges the trouble the turtle has to face every day and her ability to persevere.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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