Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem ‘Kindness’ explores how to be kind to all around us. This poem simply talks about its value in the modern world. The speaker of this piece talks directly with the readers and guides them. This voice sounds like that of a sagacious spirit who has learned a lot from life. It seems the voice is talking with an enquirer who wants to know about kindness.
For describing this concept, Nye uses some beautiful metaphors. Alongside that, she makes use of vivid imagery of day-to-day life to throw light on this human value. The way she simplifies the concept makes this poem more engaging to the readers.
This poem consists of three sections. Each section explores kindness from a different angle. At first, the speaker or the poet herself directly addresses the readers. She reveals what kindness feels like. To describe how to be kind, she points at the basic requirements. Firstly, a person has to be selfless and lose all the desires except the desire of spreading kindness.
In the following sections, readers come across several images. Each image presents a respective idea. The depiction of an Indian white poncho reveals the connection of a person to that innocent victim. In the last stanza, a series of images present kindness in everyone around a particular person. There is only one requirement. He or she has to open the inner eyes to feel this virtue in other human beings.
You can read the full poem here.
In this piece, Naomi describes how to be kind. The basic idea is to present the role of kindness in the modern world. According to the speaker, for understanding kindness, one has to get rid of selfish thoughts. There should be the feeling of humbleness and selflessness in the heart. Then the person can truly explore the meaning of this virtue.
Human beings are not inherently unkind. If this value does not exist, humanity will cease to exist. A person has to be open-minded to discover how kindness shaped him as a human being. For example, parents selflessly nurture their children and make them fit for their future journey. So, they are showing kindness to their kids. When the child matures and becomes aware of worldly affairs, he or she can understand this basic virtue keeps humanity alive. If a person is aware of this fact, he can eventually understand the value of kindness.
This poem is structured into three stanzas. There is not a specific line count in each section. For example, the first stanza contains seven lines. Whereas the following one has only seven lines. The stanzas do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. So, this piece is in free verse. Nye uses internal rhymings for maintaining the verbal flow. Besides, several repetitions add rhythmic flow to the lines.
The syllable count per line is not specific. Some lines are short, having only a few syllables. While some of them are comparably longer due to the presence of several syllables. While reading, the stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Therefore, the overall poem is written in the iambic meter. However, there are a few metrical variations as well.
This poem features several literary devices that make it an interesting read. To begin with, there is a paradox in the first two lines. These lines appear to be confusing at first. But after reading them again, it reveals a truth. In the following lines, Nye incorporates a simile. The comparison she makes is between future and salt.
The following lines begin with a similar word. It’s a use of anaphora. There is a metaphor in the “regions of kindness.” The poet implicitly compares kindness to a desolate landscape. The line, “How you ride and ride” contains a repetition for the sake of emphasis.
In the second stanza, Nye uses imagery for depicting an Indian in a white poncho. He appears as dead, lying by the road. There is a metaphor in the usage of the phrase, “simple breath.”
In the last stanza, there is a symbol in the usage of the word “cloth”. It represents humanity in distress. Another important thing to mention here is that Nye uses enjambment for internally connecting the lines and keeping the pace sustained. The last few lines of this stanza contain a personification.
Before you know what kindness really is
like salt in a weakened broth.
Naomi’s inspirational poem, ‘Kindness’ begins with the word “Before.” This word sets the mood of the overall stanza. It seems as if a wise speaker is talking with a mere human being who is a bit confused regarding the concept of kindness. To clarify this value, the speaker puts forth the steps that one must follow before incorporating this value. Another thing to mention here is that the first line of the following stanzas also begins with the same word.
In the first few lines, the poetic persona presents a paradoxical idea. She says one has to lose things and then the meaning of kindness can make sense. Losing things does not mean inattentively get rid of things. It is not a reference to the ignorance of mankind. Rather it is hinting at a conscious decision that directly originates from the heart. A person has to lose his grip over the things he likes the most and then this value wakes up in the heart. To summarize, the second line talks about detachment from self-centered thoughts.
The following lines present an interesting comparison. According to the speaker, kindness feels like the future is dissolving within a moment. It is “like salt in weakened broth.” There are two concepts. One is salt and another is weakened broth. The first element represents the future and the following refers to the mind. Kindness makes the mind so soft and stable that future thoughts dissolve in it like salt. After the recipe is prepared one cannot separate salt from the dish. Likewise, kindness helps one to get rid of desires. These selfish desires stop a person from being kind to others.
What you held in your hand,
between the regions of kindness.
In the following lines, the speaker talks about the mindset that is essential for nurturing kindness. The first line of this section hints at the things held in one’s hand. This image of the hand holding onto something is a reference to possessiveness. The attraction for an object, a person, or something else is implied by this line. It also seems that the speaker is talking about how a person becomes attached to a particular thing.
The following line makes the meaning of the first line more clear. In this line, Nye presents two verbs, to count and to save. Both of these verbs are related to money. Through these two lines, readers can understand that the speaker is talking about how a person saves money throughout his life for his purpose. It can be any valuable material that one keeps in their savings carefully.
This attitude hinders one to show kindness to others. This mindset leads one to think only about oneself and the close ones. To cherish kindness, egotistical thoughts should not be encouraged. The attraction to the things that a person hoards must go. To be kind to others, people have to be free from the attraction of mere materials. Then they can understand how kindness feels like.
In the following lines, readers come across a metaphor of the desolate landscape of the region of kindness. The desolate land is compared to a person who is kind to others. When personal desires fade away, there comes a state of perfect peace. Without attractions, the metaphorical landscape of kindness looks desolate. So, before understanding how kindness feels like, the mind has to be like a desolate region.
How you ride and ride
will stare out the window forever.
In these lines, there is kinetic imagery of a bus running through the desolate region mentioned previously. The “bus” is a metaphor for the course of life. Riders continue this journey on the way of kindness throughout their life. It never halts. There is no reason to stop as there is no desire to stick to one place or one thing. When the mind becomes free from all the attractions, it smoothly runs on the track of kindness. This “bus” stops when mortality makes it to.
According to the speaker, a kind person is like a rider on the bus. The passengers who are engrossed in their mundane thoughts are also there. But, the person alone in his thoughts. He can see them eating “maize and chicken.” The only difference is there are no desires for such things in his heart. He would stare out of the window and look at the “region of kindness.” There is a feeling of gratitude by looking at them satisfied with what others are doing.
This metaphorical bus as well as the journey depicts life as a whole. It is representative of the course of life.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
lies dead by the side of the road.
The second stanza begins like the previous stanza. In the first line, Naomi’s speaker talks about understanding the “tender gravity of kindness.” The quoted phrase contains a metaphor. Nye implicitly compares the abstract with the concrete. Kindness, being an abstract idea is compared to tender things. Through this reference, readers can understand how tender the mind of a kind person is.
In the following lines, the speaker presents a shocking image of an Indian. He is in a white poncho and lies dead by the road. It seems the speaker knows that person and the enquirer knows him as well. This image implies an unnatural death. Death comes and lays her icy hands on anyone at any point of time. In this way, the poetic persona also refers to the transience of life.
Readers can find another implicit reference to the conflict between the two classes in these lines. The speaker talks about a particular place where the dead body can be found. In that unnamed place, racial conflict exists. And the Indian can be a victim of unkindness and brutality. So, if anyone wants to know the role of kindness in society, they have to travel to places where this value is absent in humans. Then they can realize the value of kindness.
You must see how this could be you,
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
In the last few lines of the second stanza, the speaker interestingly says that anyone can be a victim of unforeseen events. This line explores the universality of death. Humans are destined to die. So, in this short span of life, one shows kindness to others it can impact others as well as others who are about to enter life’s ruthless struggles.
That person in the white poncho was similar to any other human being. He had dreams in his heart. Besides, he was journeying through the metaphorical night with plans for tomorrow. But, nobody was aware of the event. Even the person did not know that the plans he was chalking the previous night were going to prove futile. The next morning he died and his dead body was lying by the side of a road.
People always think about themselves. They value their lives over others. The tragedy is only a “simple breath” that keeps them alive. They don’t have the time to think that the breathing can stop at any point of time.
Humans give their best to secure their tomorrow. They struggle and toil hard to save from their hard-earned money. The things they stored finally come into no use when they discover that death can visit at any time. It doesn’t think about how hard the person works or his close ones who depend on him when it comes. It just takes the “simple breath” away.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
and you see the size of the cloth.
In the last stanza, Naomi’s speaker dives deeper into the concept of kindness for upholding its value in modern times. The first two lines explore the two deepest things lying inside the mind. The first thing is kindness and the other one is sorrow. So, they are the integral parts of our minds. Readers cannot say kindness is synonymous with sorrow. It can be said that the deepest sorrow in a person’s mind may help one to understand the value of kindness.
To know why kindness is important, readers have to decode first the significance of sorrow. A person enjoying the tide of life cannot understand how sadness feels like. When life hits hard, then the value of kindness becomes clear. That’s why the speaker says readers must wake up with sorrow. It can be a reference to personal sadness or the grief of others. A person in an emotional crisis can catch the thread of others’ sorrow.
He has to spend time with it. The poet personifies “sorrow’ here by comparing it to a human being. After spending sufficient time with sorrow, everything starts to become clear. For example, when Lord Buddha was extremely heartbroken by his people’s pangs, he felt an urge to redeem them from their distress. Similarly, when one becomes saturated with worldly distress, one realizes the importance of kindness. Alongside that, they can make out why others are suffering.
In the last two lines of this section, readers can find two important metaphors. One is the “thread of all sorrows.” This “thread” stands for personal desire. According to the speaker, desire is the root cause of all sorrows. After realizing it, one can see the “size of the cloth.” This “cloth” is a metaphor for humanity. Humans are like threads and collectively they form a cloth that is referred to as humanity. So, here the poet talks about the grief of humankind.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
like a shadow or a friend.
When one can feel how others are suffering just like him, he or she can realize the importance of showing kindness to others. In the following lines, the speaker explores the simple acts of kindness. For example, in the lines, “only kindness that ties your shoes/ and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread.” These lines present an image. In this image, readers can see a mother tying the laces of her child’s shoes. This image showcases an act of kindness.
Everyone has seen this act at home. A mother selflessly takes care of her children. She is kind to her kids whenever they need her the most. Moreover, she makes them ready for the battle they have to fight outside the comfort of their home. In this way, the speaker presents how kindness protects the bond between a mother and her children. Besides, the “bread” is a metonym for a living.
The last few lines of this stanza personify kindness and compare it to a partner or reflection. According to the speaker, there is always a person who is waiting for another. This reference seems to be a reference to a lover. Love is a counterpart of kindness. If a person is not kind to his or her partner, the relationship cannot sustain.
Readers can also think that the speaker is talking about how one can change by seeing another’s act of kindness. When the act has an immense impact on one’s mind, the person changes. Then he starts to show kindness to others and feel that the spirit of kindness becomes a part of life, like a friend or shadow.
The poem, ‘Kindness’ appears in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry collection, “Words Under Words: Selected Poems.” It was published in 1955. This poem is one of Nye’s best-known works. Through this piece, she explores the need of the hour that is kindness. In the modern world, people are becoming more focused on their materialistic pleasures without thinking about how others are struggling with their day-to-day problems. Therefore, kindness is at stake. But, it cannot be removed at all. When the realization touches one’s heart, from then onwards they value kindness over all their desires. In this way, Nye highlights the importance of being kind to others in the present context.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes and subject matter of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, ‘Kindness’.
- Auld Lang Syne by Robert Burns – This poems upholds the value of showing kindness and shares the memories associated with one’s old friends. Explore more Robert Burns poetry.
- Have You Earned Your Tomorrow by Edgar Guest – This piece presents several probing questions to readers regarding how they spend their days. Read more poems from Edgar Guest.
- The Great Realisation by Tomfoolery – This poem reveals the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the world and how people understood the value of compassion and kindness. Explore more Tomfoolery poems.
- Once the World Was Perfect by Joy Harjo – This poem explores the loss and regaining of the world’s perfect state with one act of kindness. Read more poems of Joy Harjo.