Kay Ryan’s Poem, ‘All Your Horses’

Photo by Don Usner.

So, one of my quirks is that when I encounter something that strikes me as profound — the point at which the match strikes and ignites in me — my reaction is to giggle. I don’t know why that is. It’s like I’m so overcome with, “Oh, that’s right, I feel exactly what you mean,” and it comes out as excited, giddy giggles.

That happened with the American poet Kay Ryan’s poem today. A commenter on my recent Dickinson post, who incidentally is also named Kay, recommended Ryan, so I hopped onto Poetry Foundation and selected a few poems at random to see how they’d land. The second one, “All Your Horses,” landed right in my giggle spot. The good, profound kind.

Ryan, who was born in 1945 in California, has written several books of poetry, and her 2010 collection, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, according to the Foundation. Kay (the commenter, not the poet) recommended Ryan because of the comparisons to Dickinson, and the Foundation backs that connection up, too, along with a comparison to Marianne Moore, who I’m also not as familiar with, but will have to check out soon.

I love how Ryan describes her own poetry and how it begins, as not starting with imagery or sound, but rather it develops “the way an oyster does, with an aggravation.” That’s a great nexus for any sort of art.

The poem today, “All Your Horses,” starts out in that manner, with more of a thought of aggravation than a specific image, but it winds up into it.

Here is the poem in full, and here is an excerpt (which I’m specifically going to share the opening lines to reinforce what I said above):

Say when rain
cannot make
you more wet
or a certain
thought can’t
deepen and yet
you think it again:

That is so damn true. Profound. Like, imagining my body like it’s a giant cup, and I have this thought, and this thought is a liquid I pour into the cup, and I think I’ve reached the brim, and I feel full, but then … I think it again, and somehow, the thought I thought couldn’t deepen, does.

Something like this is the image in my head:

Pretty.

Where it’s like, you should be overflowing, but because of engineering and science I don’t understand, it never does.

Anyway, I love how Ryan plays with an idea in a literal playful way knowing it’s not true: “like a rupture in water” and then she has the parenthetical that: (which can’t rupture of course). But that’s the well, aggravating, part of it all, right? The aggravation of having those sorts of thoughts that don’t seem like they can get any deeper is that they do seem to somehow keep going and getting deeper.

Finally, she caps off the poem with, “All your horses broken out with all your horses.” To be in ineloquent, I freaking love that line, and it’s exactly at that point that I devolved into giggles when I read this poem the first time. Because … yes! That’s the exact way to describe all of this. All your horses broken out with all your horses.

Now, I’ve seen some people describe the poem differently. As saying, that once that ruptures happens — like an optimistic note — we can break out our horses with all our other horses and see what happens, as it were. That’s a fair interpretation, but that’s not the way my brain approached it. I saw the poem as Ryan trying to approach an aggravation (our dang thoughts that seem to be so heavy already) and trying to wind back to that aggravation through a few different images (rain making us wet, ruptured water, horses loose) as a way to express it and explain it.

But, again, that’s why I love poetry. I don’t think there’s any “right” answers necessarily; poetry is how it hits you.

What do you make of this poem?

5 thoughts

  1. I struggle to comment on this poem. I like your description or your reaction to profundity. My reaction is less hysterical. I experience the kind of thought collapse that the poem describes accompanied by a nice stillness and often followed by a head twitch…then a fresh thought, if I’m lucky (a returning horse?)

    Liked by 1 person

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