Perspective: ‘Famous’ by Naomi Shihab Nye

The first time I read this poem was only 10 minutes ago. I was reading it while Disturbed’s rendition of The Sound of Silence was playing. I was reading it after I’ve spent the last two and a half days debating the morals of a religion I am not a part of while the people I was debating with said it was inherently evil (they were also not part of that religion). I read this poem at what one might call an emotionally and spiritually raw state, quite possibly the best and most difficult time to read a poem.

In terms of pure construction, I love how this poem is divided into sentences and how the lines are divided into purposes. I love how the structure is basic so that the meaning may be understood at its fullest.

I especially love lists within poetry. If I’m not mistaken, it was Walt Whitman who first mastered this, and this poem is Whitmanian in both form and meaning. Naomi Shihab Nye, excuse the pun, knows herself but also knows herself in relation to the world.

As I was first going through this, my immediate thought was that the poem was commentating on the idea that we can only see through our own eyes. It makes sense considering the poet, according to The Poetry Foundation, “was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1952. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American of German and Swiss descent, and Nye spent her adolescence in both Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.” It also fell in line with the way I was thinking at the time: in that the people I was debating with had ideas borne of life I did not know or understand; in that a band of men known for songs that always sound a little try-hard could understand and respect and add their own feel to such a soulful ballad.

But as I got to the end of the poem, my mind was changed as Nye explained her own desire to be famous. I thought this had become a poem of the self aware egotist, and I had just about given up on the poem, ready to click ‘next’ and find something with a bit more to it than self-indulgence.

And then I got to the final stanza:

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

This made me entirely aware that Nye sees being famous as something entirely different to what I thought. Rereading the poem, I can see throughout its entirety that being famous is not about being adored, but about the small things, about appreciation. But moreover, it’s about only achieving this acknowledgement, this appreciation through having a purpose and fulfilling that purpose. Each stanza has a reason for the famous it holds, whether it’s need, fear, sorrow, desire, etc. But the stanza that is Naomi Shihab Nye, her desire to be famous lies in being steadfast and purposeful.

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