On Human Progress: Thoughts on Kay Ryan’s “Turtle”

Turtle (from poetry 180)
Kay Ryan

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
She can ill afford the chances she must take
In rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
A packing-case places, and almost any slope
Defeats her modest hopes. Even being practical,
She’s often stuck up to the axle on her way
To something edible. With everything optimal,
She skirts the ditch which would convert
Her shell into a serving dish. She lives
Below luck-level, never imagining some lottery
Will change her load of pottery to wings.
Her only levity is patience,
The sport of truly chastened things.


The contradiction is inherent within the turtle: it moves despite itself, and this poem goes through various sorts of motion. First, as a “four-oared helmet,” she must “row” across land, as if the land were as difficult to move across as water. Then from ships we move to horses dragged down by what they pull, I think (cf. Yeats, “The Fascination of What’s Difficult”); the most graceful animal can be graceless when burdened. “Axle” brings us away from animal motion, and recalls a carriage or locomotive. Still, an “axle” alone is not enough to “skirt” a ditch; maneuverability has been added to power, and finally, we are left with at least the thought of “wings.”

The “axle” – upon which rotation occurs – is the center of the poem, but had to be discovered despite the invocation of “a barely mobile hard roll.” It brings us to the poem anew: now we pay attention to geography. At first was the ocean, then mountains (“slope”). After that, a problem internal to moving (“stuck up to the axle”). If there is no problem, ditches are skirted, and while flight is mentioned, the turtle lives “below luck-level.” The geography implies a sort of rising and falling.

Still another rotation: “helmet,” “track,” “axle” – a chariot? That’s only half, because then there’s “serving dish,” “lottery,” “wings.” In the Phaedrus, wings carry the soul, and one has to wonder about the principle Socrates states is the soul: self-motion. Something similar is going on here: one half of the poem is active motion, the other half is about being carried to (“serving dish”) or away (“wings”). “Packing-case” and “pottery” divide the poem, as two ways to contain burden.

Again, the contradiction is inherent within the turtle: “Who would be a turtle who could help it?” We’re all turtles: the history of human progress started practically: we just wanted to eat. But it had to turn to optimality, despite our slow progress. We had to learn, ironically enough, to be patient with what we could achieve. The fact of the “ditch” pushed us firmly into living “below luck-level.” This creates another problem: progress, in a way, aims for what is lowest. It seems ambitious because of who we are, but take “us” out of the equation, and these are remarkably simple tasks to which we are asking for solutions most of the time.

The crisscrossing of pride and humility, the inherent faith in progress, and the constancy of burden (whether we “package” it in a simple case or shape pottery to a perceived need) all create a “hard roll.” Our political attitudes today take any one of these concepts and further simplify, i.e. transhumanism, where simple “progress” can make us immortal. The fact that this is believed – that the science is not only inconclusive as of yet, and it isn’t quite clear what will be discovered about our biology as time goes on – we don’t quite see. Perhaps we have confused how the practical and optimal relate, have forgotten how our better hopes are modest because they have already been chastened.


  1. Do you think there is something about self protection here- I’m struck by images like ‘helmet’, ‘packing cases’, ‘skirts’- there is something prudential about the turtle. I was wondering if the poem also is arguing that there is a risk in avoiding risk- that it loses the grace that is neccessary to a full human life and risks losing acheivement. I put that forward as an additional, not an alternative explanation- I’d not come across Kay Ryan before, this is good.

  2. Oh how i wish i was a turtle sometimes as i am so clumsy and always bump into things and slip over, i could do with a bit of armour!! love the poetry by the way i have saved this blogg to show my friend who writes a bit. Thanks

  3. The biggest thing that struck me was the off-set rhyme. Reading your comments makes it so much easier for me to understand!


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