Dear Linda Gregerson,
Your poem "The Horses Run Back to Their Stalls" is a poem that I really enjoyed. It made me think and learn a lot though I still have a lot of questions.
When I was reading your poem I noticed that it seems like someone is telling a story or having a conversation about the past even though the poem doesn't show the response of the other person, so I was wondering who the speaker is, they sound like an adult that is talking to a child, I think this because they mention their grandfather and I normally associate this with a child. I have thought that maybe you are the speaker or who the speaker is talking to, but your name is Gregerson not Kilmer, of course you still could be related to Willis Kilmer (Willis Kilmer is the breeder of Reigh Count but you probably already know that) but I don’t think that's very likely. It could also be that the speaker isn’t even related to Willis Kilmer but I just imagined that maybe it was a family member that was talking about the grandfather or a close friend, which if it was a close friend that would mean that the speaker isn't related to Willis Kilmer.
Another question of mine is was the fire a true event? I did a little bit of research on it and I couldn’t find anything, and so I was wondering was it true and or did you just make it up for the poem. I was wondering if the fire was real because I have never heard about it, but then again I didn’t know about the Chicago Cab Strike, and I don’t exactly keep up with fires from history. I also was wondering if there was a fire or if there wasn’t did the trainer of Reigh Count betray the owner of the stalls? In the poem it says that “the trainer who slept in his stall had been moved to another” so that sounds like the trainer knew that the fire was going to happen and moved with Reigh Count to another stall, and if that is what was happening then why? Why would the trainer betray the grandfather? Did something happen so that the trainer didn’t like the grandfather? And if so what? Was it something from a little bit ago from when the poem takes place or was it close to when the poem takes place? Or was it just the trainer was just a jerk and there was nothing between them but they still decided to not tell the grandfather.
Also, how did you decide on the format? I looked at some of your old poems and I noticed that they either had the same or a similar format. Is there a reason for this? Why or how did you decide on this format that is more or less used in all of your poems? Did you decide this before or after you started publishing poems? I have never seen this kind of format or seen any poet use a similar format continuously in more or less all of their poems. It's very interesting. And so I’m just wondering why you chose to do it so continuously, and the weird thing is that it worked for all of your poems.
Is the nursery rhyme that is mentioned at the end a real nursery rhyme? I did some research and I couldn’t find anything, so this isn’t a big question, really it's just me wondering.
I hope that you can answer all of my questions. It would mean a lot if you replied to but I mean you don’t have to (please do). I also hope that you have a good day and that you don't get too tired out by letters coming in from the Dear Poet people.
Thank you for your letter and for the great questions (you are clearly a terrific reader!). Let’s see how well I can answer them.
The poem is spoken in the voice of my mother, and the “you” she is addressing is me. The story, unfortunately, is a true one and occurred when she was a child. Good for you for finding out about Willis Kilmer! My grandfather Oscar Nordby never trained horses or worked at the horse farm outside our little town—he was a sign painter, a very skilled one. Everyone in town took great pride in the racehorses, though, so when Reigh Count won the Kentucky Derby my grandfather on his own initiative painted that celebratory banner and hung it across Main Street (the commercial section in our town was exactly one block long). It was four years later that the horse barn was set on fire, apparently by arsonists. Since the owner of the farm and the horses, John D. Hertz, was also the owner of the Yellow Cab Company in Chicago, forty miles away, and since there was a very bitter workers’ strike going on—this was smack in the middle of the Great Depression—people just assumed that angry strikers had set the fire, but that was never proven. In my mother’s version of the story, Reigh Count and his trainer survived the fire because someone seemed to have warned about it in advance, but I’ve just looked up a local history that tells it differently: one of the jockeys ran into the burning barn, tied his shirt across the horse’s head, and rode him out of the barn. Horses are desperately frightened of fire, as I’m sure you know, and will run right back into a burning barn “for safety” unless they’re restrained. Eleven horses died in the fire at the Hertz Farm that year.
Thanks too for asking about the verse form. When I first started publishing poems, I used a very different stanza form: all the lines began flush left and were approximately the same length, like this:
XXX XXXXXX XXXXXX
XXXXXXXXX XX XXXX
X XXXX XXX XXX XXXX
XXXX XXXX XX XXX
But after I published my first book of poems, I decided I was very unhappy with that format—I just didn’t like the way it interacted with the rhythms of my phrases and sentence structure – so I experimented for a while. When I found the tercet to which you’re referring, the asymmetries and the extra white space seemed to give the poem more “breathing room,” like this:
XXXX XXXXXXX XXX XXXXX
I used that form for two whole books before I added other variants. It’s not the exclusive stanza in which I work now, but I still go back to it from time to time and the asymmetry principal is still one that’s very attractive to me.
The nursery rhyme:
Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy’s in the well.
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Green.
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that
To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who never did him any harm
But killed the mice in his father’s barn.
Please convey my thanks to your teacher for including a poetry unit in your sixth grade class. And here’s wishing you all the best as you start your year in seventh grade.