Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Horse Show at Midnight” can be interpreted in a number of ways. On one hand it is about the ancient human longing to communicate and connect with that which is not human. It is also about some primitive, id-driven desire not only to contact, but also to become “the other,” to break utterly and finally from the confines and limitations of the human body and consciousness and become something absolutely different.

The judge-rider of the poem recognizes this desire, and through dream or fantasy or some other altered state of consciousness attempts to meld body and spirit with the horse. When the horse departs and the rider is left in the ring alone, he despairs for having failed to become the horse, left “Kneeling in nothing but bones.” The “bones” symbolize the desire for physial metamorphoses, but because there is no physical transformation from man into horse, he considers his efforts an utter failure.

At the conclusion of part 2, in which the reader experiences the same events through the horse’s point of view, the reader accepts the melding of the spiritual man and spiritual horse. The horse in some primordial way understands that the man “moves with new life,” even if the man does not. The poem suggests that despite humans’ self-awareness and superior intellect, they are unable, like the “dumb” animals, to connect with the primitive or unseen and subtle parts of life. If it is not physical and obvious, people do not, sometimes, see it or feel it. In other words, the horse’s consciousness can cut through all the complications and be accepting of what is. The man needs proof, needs the experience to be absolute and complete on all levels. When it is not, he is saddened by what he perceives as failure.

On one level, at least, “The Horse Show at Midnight,” the title poem of Taylor’s third book, announced a topic that he would return to many times in both his poetry and his prose. Taylor, a horseman of the first order, has drawn from his deep knowledge of the animal and the art of riding to bring a distinctness to contemporary American poetry. As poets’ early poems often do, this one points in a sure direction and begins to map out themes, rhythms, and devices for an entire career.