The first sentence I learned from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” is the shortest: “You must wake up with sorrow.”
I wrote it out and said it aloud. And I thought about the family Von Trapp, who had to flee their beloved Austria because, as the Captain says, “There is no more Austria.” I imagined the seven children waking up that first morning on an “ev’ry mountain” they had to climb to escape the Nazis. They probably woke up with sorrow.
But if I could bend time and somehow give them Nye’s poem, published more than fifty years after they fled, I would. And I’d remind them of this:
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
Here is the poem, with its most common line breaks, and a link to hear Nye read it:
The Sound of Music was on my mind as I began learning “Kindness” by heart in June, while I was in a community theater production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical. Our director, Charlie Hukill, wrote this for the program: “Against this dark environment there is a counterpoint of young love in Sixteen Going on Seventeen, the beauty of the natural world around us in the title song, The Sound of Music, and the heartfelt plea of ‘bless my homeland forever’ found in the beautiful tune, Edelweiss. And, of course, the crowning song of hope and encouragement, Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
How do you solve a problem like the Nazis? You grab a guitar and sing.
How did Naomi Shihab Nye cope when she and her husband were robbed in Colombia, on their honeymoon, and lost everything, including their passports? She wrote this poem. Or rather, she said, “I was simply the secretary for the poem.”
The story is at On Being (as are all of the quotes), and it is how I was introduced to “Kindness.”
When this terrible thing happened, Nye did have her pencil and notebook in her back pocket, and so when “this voice came across the plaza and spoke this poem to me — spoke it,” she wrote it down. And now it belongs to all of us.
She could have titled it many things: “Murder” for realism, “Honeymoon” for irony. But she called it “Kindness.” It may be my all-time favorite poem.
But it is not easy to memorize. No rhyme, no rhythm. It reads just like it came to her, all at once, even with the stanza breaks. How could I learn it by heart when I’d seen “the size of the cloth”? Forgive me, but I broke it up even more.
I wrote each sentence on a pink notecard, in black ink so it would photograph better. (I prefer to write in pencil.) And each afternoon through July, as I took my tea and The Slowdown outside, I’d work on it, card by card. I don’t have it all, not all the “Kindness” there is to be had, but I have more “Kindness” in my heart than when I was singing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Now it “goes with [me] everywhere / like a shadow or a friend.”
Nye lives only an hour away from me, in San Antonio, but I’ve yet to hear her in person. I’m hoping to correct that soon. She grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, to an American mother and a Palestinian father. She and her family lived, for a time, in Jerusalem, before settling in Texas. She is a prominent poet, period, but her background as an Arab-American does make her voice distinct. Her collection published after 9/11, 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
She’s worked with school children all over the world and has been named the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate (more on that next month, when her term begins). In the introduction to her 2018 collection Voices in the Air, Nye muses:
Not so long ago we were never checking anything in our hands, scrolling down, pecking with a finger, obsessively tuning in. My entire childhood did not involve a single deletion.”
Yes, she’s talking about technology, but I suspect she’s talking about other things too, things a different poet might have deleted. Instead, in “Kindness,” Nye turns our focus and invites us to look both outside and inside.
Even though this poem has a dark background, it’s not too dark to be discussed in an age-appropriate classroom. Teachers never know who, among their students, eats “maize and chicken.” Who has “journeyed through the night with plans” and learned they won’t come true. Who finds small things — like tying shoes, mailing letters, and purchasing bread — to be big, bold things.
In this unkind world, perhaps the greatest thing young people can learn is not how to make a good line break, but instead, how, after even deep sorrow, “Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.”
(If you listened to the link from On Being, you will notice that when Nye recites the poem, she changes one line, from “and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread” to “and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread.” That’s the way I learned it.)
Did you memorize “Kindness” this month? Join our By Heart community and share your audio or video using the hashtags #ByHeart and #MemoriesWithFriends and tagging us @tspoetry. We also welcome photos of your handwritten copy of the poem.
By Heart for August
For the next By Heart gathering, August 30, we’ll learn “I Wandered Lonely As A Cloud” by William Wordsworth by heart.
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Photo by Caroline, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Megan Willome.
Browse more By Heart
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro
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Laura Brown says
What a detail, that after that theft, she still possessed a pencil and a notebook.
And what a great poem to learn by heart. It’s worth the challenge of memorizing something without rhyme or meter. I haven’t memorized it yet, but I’m working on it. Thanks for noting that there are different versions of this poem out in the world. I’m fond of the “to gaze at bread” line, too. It suggests someone who might only be able to look at it but not purchase it.
Megan Willome says
My thoughts exactly, on the bread.
I will say that making a separate notecard for each sentence has really helped the memorization process. I’m close. I think I’ll have it by the 31st.
L.L. Barkat says
“My entire childhood did not involve a single deletion” is an interesting note. I wonder what she actually means by that. (Some childhoods involved, instead, crumpling, burning, tearing into confetti-sized pieces. I have felt, in my own growing-up, that it is the process of coming to maturity that allows us to forego the crumplings, burnings, and tearings and instead let things exist as they are, somehow appreciating the gifts despite the shortcomings of any given thing—even if sometimes we also walk away, in large part, from certain things.)
And isn’t that also what the paper & pen and the guitar & song are doing? It’s the work of Art not to delete so much as refashion the unfathomable into something you can hold in the heart. (I really liked this point of yours that was made through Sound of Music.)
So far I have…
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
I learned that in about two minutes. But the rest of the poem has proven more challenging. The internal structure of its own rhythms and lines is not as “inevitable” as the opening. I find myself remembering the images more than the words… riding and riding the bus, the passengers eating maize and chicken, the staring out the window, the Indian in the white poncho who journeyed through the night and had plans, the simple breath that kept him alive. Part of me is too much disagreeing with the poem, I think. Sometimes we can know kindness best by being surrounded by it, rather than being stripped of it. Anyway, I think it’s the way my mind keeps dialoging with the poem that’s preventing me from fully memorizing. We shall see! 🙂 (That said, I really, really love “how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness.”)
Megan Willome says
A good poem often makes us dialogue with it.
In the On Being interview there is a part of this story I didn’t go into, about the kindness of a stranger in that unkind moment.
I think much art is about finding ways to hold things.
I’m adding your last sentence there, Megan, to my quote file. Thank you for it!
Megan Willome says
Thank you, Marilyn.
Sandra Heska King says
I love how you connected this to the von Trapp family. Grace and I talked about how the poem speaks to her summer, how she was on a journey with plans, how she felt her future dissolve in a moment’s collision, and the kindness of so many. I think in her sorrow, she will find a deeper well of kindness for others.
I have memorized it, though I’m still working with a couple stray words. I’ll post as soon as I get a quiet few moments to recite. I’m so glad you chose this one.
Megan Willome says
Sandy, knowing you’re a fellow Naomi-lover inspired me to tackle this one.
And I love how you’ve seen the parallels with Grace’s summer and that you two have shared this poem together.
Sandra Heska King says
Here’s my recitation.
Megan Willome says
The T-shirt you’re wearing is perfect.
Thank you for joining me on this “Kindness” journey.