Within this piece, the poet uses familiar images of a kitchen and dining room to help describe the constant state of an onion. It plays such an important role in every meal that it’s in, but it’s never given the credit it deserves. The onion is ignored and disappears into the background so that other food items can shine in the forefront. The speaker is moved by this and alludes to a broader need to acknowledge the simple, important things in life in ‘The Traveling Onion.’
Explore The Traveling Onion
‘The Traveling Onion’ by Naomi Shihab Nye is a thoughtful poem about the importance of an overlooked onion.
The speaker starts the poem by describing how moved she becomes when she thinks about how far an onion has traveled to be in her kitchen. It’s traveled and traveled, and now she’s cutting it up, and it’s falling apart perfectly. This is something that goes unappreciated by most people, and she wants to rectify that at this moment. She adds in the second half that the onion has a right to make people cry. It’s continually being ignored in meals in favor of the meat or the smell, and this is how it gets people’s attention.
The poem concludes with the speaker suggesting that the onion, which disappears into the background for the sake of others, should have its time in the spotlight too.
You can read the full poem here.
When I think how far the onion has traveled
just to enter my stew today, I could kneel and praise
all small forgotten miracles,
crackly paper peeling on the drainboard,
In the first lines of ‘The Traveling Onion,’ the speaker begins by asking the reader to consider how far the onion has come to be in her stew “today.” This is a good example of personification, one that suggests the onion is a traveler and chose to go to her house when she needed it. When she considers this fact, she’s moved to praise and thank the onion for its efforts and celebrate “all small forgotten miracles.” It’s this phrase that should make the reader consider what else the poet might be thinking about besides the onion. What other “small forgotten miracles” might we be overlooking in day-to-day life?
She also wants to celebrate the way that the onion cooks and how it “falls apart on the chopping block.” It does exactly what she needs it to do, which should not be overlooked. It’s a perfect moment in the kitchen.
for causing tears.
It is right that tears fall
for something small and forgotten.
or its traditionally honorable career:
For the sake of others,
In the second half of the poem, the speaker adds that the tears that may come to her eyes while she’s cooking are well deserved. The onion is always overlooked during meals, and it’s right that some “tears fall / for something small and forgotten.” Again, the poet uses the word “forgotten.” It’s clear that she’s interested in considering “forgotten” things, miracles, experiences, etc.
When they eat, they don’t comment on how good the onion is. Instead, it’s always about the meat or the “herbal aroma.” The onion disappears into the background, “For the sake of others.” Here, again, the poet is alluding to a deeper meaning. Readers should consider who or what else plays a similar role. Who else sacrifices themselves and disappears into the background?
Structure and Form
‘The Traveling Onion’ by Naomi Shihab Nye is a nineteen-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines are written in free verse. This means that they do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poet uses lines that range from three words up to ten and with a wide variety of syllable numbers.
Throughout ‘The Traveling Onion,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: occurs when the writer cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. This means the reader has to jump down to the next line in order to find out how the previous concluded. For example, the transition between lines nine and ten as well as lines one and two.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses especially memorable and vibrant descriptions. For example, the “crackly paper peeling on the drainboard” and “translucence of onion,
- now limp, now divided.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “paper peeling” in line four.
- Personification: occurs when the poet imbues something non-human with human characteristics. For example, in this piece, the speaker refers to the onion as a traveler. As though it chose to travel “far” to be in “my stew today.”
The meaning is that one should take the time to appreciate the little things—especially those that usually go unacknowledged by play a big role in one’s life. The onion is used as a symbol of this. It sacrifices itself, disappearing into the background of meals so that other foods can shine.
She wrote this poem in order to explore the importance of simple things in the kitchen and, more broadly, in life itself. Although she doesn’t explicitly state what the onion represents, she does acknowledge that it gets lost in the mix of recipes and meals, adding a great taste but never getting complimented.
The main theme is the appreciation of little things/moments. The poet wants readers to remember and take note of the small things that make life what it is. Without the onion, a meal wouldn’t be the same, so one should enjoy and be appreciative of it.
The speaker is someone who works in the kitchen to feed a family or group of people fairly often. It’s like it’s a woman, and she’s able to take the time to appreciate the small things in life.
Readers might walk away from this poem feeling contemplative and with a new appreciation for the things in their life that they normally overlook. It was the poet’s intent that readers take the time to see and appreciate what they take for granted. This could be an object, like the onion, a person, or an experience.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Traveling Onion’ should also consider reading some other Naomi Shihab Nye poems. For example:
- ‘Kindness’ – describes how people can practice kindness in their day-to-day lives and why they have to be kind to all.
- ‘Blood’ – speaks on the poet’s own sense of identity as a Palestinian- American growing up in-between the two cultures.
- ‘Supple Cord’ – expresses the link between two siblings as a “cord” that represents their unity.