yes, please

Jan 23, 2020 poetry appreciation

Something to move and comfort us today, a poem nourishing and everyday-special as homemade soup. Naomi Shihab Nye’s ‘Kindness’ actually mentions soup, but her poem is not the ‘weakened broth’ to which it refers. No, this is a complete meal. It’s tender and wise and lives up to its name. You can read it here or hear the poet read it here.

This is one of those poems in response to which I mostly just want to nod and say, yes. It speaks of how we learn what really matters: how we must ‘lose things,/ feel the future dissolve in a moment/ like salt in a weakened broth’ (what an image!) before our experience of ‘desolat[ion]’ can teach us properly to value ‘kindness’. Growing wise is a process more painful than we can imagine.

The images, particularly in stanzas one and two, invite us to sense what Eliot in Middlemarch calls ‘the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance’ (the ‘size of the cloth’). We think at times that ‘the bus will never stop’. We have to travel far into the wide, apparently barren landscapes of grief and despair in order fully to know that ‘the Indian in a white poncho//… could be you’. The learning is about the arbitrariness of fate and suffering: how we cannot protect anything, actually, no matter how carefully we have ‘counted and… saved’. It’s also about our common humanity. We all laugh and sorrow: ‘the thread’ runs through all of us, and sadness is as everyday as ‘maize and chicken’. The insight is not offered as it were from above, but from alongside. You can feel that Nye is speaking with the authority of experience—knows how hard it is some days to tie your shoes; how, sometimes, it’s only with the blank stare of spentness and grief that we can ‘gaze at bread’.

It is thus, Nye claims, that we learn the true value of kindness. I love the seemingly paradoxical claim at the beginning of stanza three: that ‘Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,/ you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing’. How can both things be ‘the deepest’? Nye is emphasising the way that both grief and kindness reach to the heart of us. I’m sure we’ve all heard (or said) at some point “If you’re nice to me I’ll burst into tears”: there’s something about kindness when we’re vulnerable which pierces us with a redemptive pain which we both fear and long for. The poem’s image of ‘kindness… rais[ing] its head/ from the crowd of the world’ catches something of all of this. It also offers the comforting idea that kindness might be on the look out for us— might make the first move, ‘rais[ing] its head/ from the crowd of the world’ to speak.

So I treasure this poem because it reminds me both that I can be found, even in the darkest places, and that my own acts of kindness have a value it’s easy to forget, particularly when I’m overwhelmed by ‘the largeness of the world’. Kind is sometimes very hard (just ask Larkin!). But it’s always important.

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