The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Winter Horses” is a poem in four short sections of thirteen, eleven, nine, and eight lines, respectively. The first and last sections’ lines are left-justified, whereas the middle sections’ lines are scattered on the page. The poem’s title provides a useful index to the poem as a whole: “Winter Horses” juxtaposes the idea of winter (stillness) and the idea of horses (motion). Readers can fruitfully consider the poem a meditation on the results of this juxtaposition. Seeming paradoxes are linked through logical associations which lead them to be viewed as complementary ideas instead of contradictory ones.

The first section catalogs the effects of winter on the land and the people. The first line, “placed two sticks upon a dazzling plate,” suggests the movement of the poem: How will readers reconceive the ordinary (the “two sticks”) on the “dazzling plate” of winter? Abruptly the poem moves from the landscape to people, invoking wars, memory, hearsay, and treachery in only two lines; apparently the emotional landscape of winter is neither still nor dazzling but turbulent and pained. The second stanza implies that readers remember the “tawnysplendor” of summer in glorious winter sunsets, despite the freeze that “shut[s] the moat.”

The next two sections, with their lines shifting on the page, work even more associatively. The conflict between winter (bearing cold stillness) and horses (living motion) persists but...

(The entire section is 567 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Guest builds the poem through an accumulation of fragments, of striking phrases that might be disturbing in their incompleteness for the reader of traditional poetry. In an interview, Guest described another one of her poems as working “on several levels and [moving] back and forthbetween levels as reality does.” In Guest’s poetic vision, reality is fragmented rather than unified. This is not to say that Guest does not believe there is any coherence but that coherence arises between the levels, between the fragments, in a process of association and accumulation. Guest’s fragmentary style urges a high level of participation from the reader. Readers cannot simply accept a given narrative or linear logic; rather, they bring their own associations to the poem and hence find the silence on the page (what Guest does not say) as the place for their participation and understanding. This does not mean that the poem can mean anything the reader wants it to, but that the fragments allow both a greater range of interpretation and any interpretation to remain subject to reconsideration by a different reader.

Guest’s use of capitalization and punctuation provide further guidance. There are no capitalized words, placing the reader in medias res. This evokes questions about the poem’s temporality: Is the poem going on now? The alternation between past and present tense suggests some narrative progression, some relation between what has passed and...

(The entire section is 441 words.)