Tale From a Vandal Scribbler: Poetry and Horses

April’s the month poetry’s celebrated around the world. It’s also Kentucky Derby season here in Louisville. As we count down to the race which takes place on the first Saturday in May, it’s not uncommon to see displays on our homes of jockey silks, horses and riders.

Immersed in poetry over the last few weeks, I’ve been surprised to discover how often horses appear in poems. In tribute to Derby season, and the horses who race, here’s a few of my favorite poems you may not be familiar with.

In 2003 when it looked as if Funny Cide might win the Triple Crown, poet Philip Levine read Philip Larkin’s poem, “At Grass” before the Belmont, the final Triple Crown race. The British phrase “at grass” means the horses are retired from racing.

The eye can hardly pick them out
From the cold shade they shelter in,
Till wind distresses tail and main;
Then one crops grass, and moves about
– The other seeming to look on –
And stands anonymous again

Yet fifteen years ago, perhaps
Two dozen distances sufficed
To fable them : faint afternoons
Of Cups and Stakes and Handicaps,
Whereby their names were artificed
To inlay faded, classic Junes –

Silks at the start : against the sky
Numbers and parasols : outside,
Squadrons of empty cars, and heat,
And littered grass : then the long cry
Hanging unhushed till it subside
To stop-press columns on the street.

Do memories plague their ears like flies?
They shake their heads. Dusk brims the shadows.
Summer by summer all stole away,
The starting-gates, the crowd and cries –
All but the unmolesting meadows.
Almanacked, their names live; they

Have slipped their names, and stand at ease,
Or gallop for what must be joy,
And not a fieldglass sees them home,
Or curious stop-watch prophesies :
Only the grooms, and the grooms boy,
With bridles in the evening come.
—”At Grass” by Philip Larkin from The Less Deceived, © 1950, The Marvell Press

You can listen to Levine read Larkin’s poem on WNYC’s website.

Kentucky poet Frank X. Walker wrote a compelling collection of poems he called, Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride. The poems are written from the perspective of Black jockey Isaac Murphy, his family and friends.

Murphy was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, in 1884, 1890, and 1891. Murphy became an internationally acclaimed rider; this was a time when most jockeys were Black men.

I dedicate this ride
to America and Kentucky’s son,
to a legacy worthy of a star on the walk,
a boulevard named in his honor,
this book.

Wrap your arms around his story,
close your eyes,
feel the wind whispering in your ears.

Grab the reins of any and everything
that makes your heart race.
Find your purpose. Find your purpose
And hold on.
–”I Dedicate This Ride” by Frank X. Walker from Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride, © 2010, Old Cove Press, ISBN 978-0967542430

After the Civil War, racists made it very difficult for Black jockeys, and they eventually disappeared from the racing industry. Today it’s still rare to see Black jockeys in thoroughbred racing.

Another favorite poem comes from bell hooks’s Appalachian Elegy. A prolific and important writer, bell hooks also hails from Kentucky.

morning dawn
mist-covered day
dreaming triumph and victory
horses gather
a herd at the top of the hill
whispering souls
ready to run
speaking a language only they can hear
sounds beyond
no heavy rider’s move
in this magic time
no need to tame and mount
all at once
they race
to reach the beyond
—by bell hooks from Appalachian elegy: poetry and place, © 2012, University Press of Kentucky, ISBN 978-0813136691

One of my all time favorite poems comes from Jane Hirshfield, evoking the timeless relationship between four-legged and two-legged beings.

I stop the car along the pasture edge,
gather up bags of corncobs from the back,
and get out.
Two whistles, one for each,
and familiar sounds draw close in darkness—
cadence of hoof on hardened bottomland,
twinned blowing of air through nostrils curious, flared.
They come deepened and muscular movements
conjured out of sleep: each small noise and scent
heavy with earth, simple beyond communion,
beyond the stretched-out hand from which they calmly
take corncobs, pulling away as I hold
until the mid-points snap.
They are careful of my fingers,
offering that animal-knowledge,
the respect which is due to strangers;
and in the night, their mares’ eyes shine, reflecting stars,
the entire, outer light of the world here.
–”After Work” by Jane Hirshfield from Of Gravity and Angels, © 1988, Wesleyan University Press, ISBN 978-0819511386

Horses have long been part of the American landscape. Horses have helped us explore, transported us, and even took their parts in our battles with each other. They’ve inspired many poets and storytellers in various ways.

It’s been said that a horse in motion is poetry.

Once in a rare while during a horse race, you’ll hear the race caller shout the words out; the horse “is poetry in motion!” The horse has run so effortlessly, so well, so far ahead of the pack, he or she is a beautiful sight.

The crowded, difficult field of the Kentucky Derby, however, doesn’t leave much room for poetry in the running of this coveted race. Yet, in my opinion, the 2009 race won by Mine that Bird makes the poetic grade.

Mine That Bird, at odds of 50 to 1, won the Derby after starting dead last. (The wagering odds of 50 to 1 that day meant that a $2 bet brought you over $100 back with his win.)

Mine That Bird’s win was so unexpected the race caller painfully ignored him as he came racing up to take the lead.

Watch as Mine That Bird comes in from along the rail, as his jockey Calvin Borel was wont to do, near the end of the race:

A quieter, aerial view of Mine that Bird’s win, shows you how far he traveled ever so beautifully:

American Pharoah’s dad, Pioneer of the Nile, came in second— 6 3/4 lengths behind Mine that Bird who won with the longest margin in over 60 years of the Kentucky Derby.

Although he continued to run for another year, Mine That Bird never won another race again. At four years old, his owners took him back home with them to Roswell, New Mexico where the gelding is said to live in happy retirement.

This guy, American Pharoah, evoked a lot of poetry on the track. But that’s also just my opinion, ay?

The novel I’m writing has a horse at the center of it. There’s even some horse racing along the way. Writing seems to be my way of figuring out my thoughts and feelings about people, horses, places, things, nature, uh… Life. Expect to see more posts about horses in the months ahead.

Meanwhile this year’s Kentucky Derby is “wide open.” Translation: any horse could win it. They are magnificent beings. Let’s wish them all a safe ride, ay?

Safe journeys to you, too, my friends. Thanks for reading.

'Tis the season! Neighborhood sighting.#kentuckyderby

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