In addition to being a poet, Nye is a songwriter and singer. In her poem ‘‘Shoulders,’’ Nye employs several musical devices to develop the tone and message of her words.
Upon a first read, Nye’s poem seems to be very simple—little more than a thought jotted down on paper. But even the simplest poems are created with purpose. In ‘‘Shoulders,’’ Nye uses her songwriting techniques and knowledge to paint a word picture whose meaning relies as much on hearing as it does on understanding the words.
Throughout the first twelve lines, Nye uses soft consonants and blends. The words are quiet, and their sounds are soothing. Especially if read aloud, these lines of poetry give the reader a sense of tranquility.
That peaceful feeling is abruptly and starkly broken beginning with line 13. From that point on, Nye uses words with hard consonant sounds such as t, g, and r. These sounds are more guttural; they do not flow softly off the tongue. Considered in contrast to the preceding twelve lines, the harsh sounds of lines 13–18 are startling.
Along with the shift to hard consonants comes a change to short words. Throughout the first twelve lines, Nye uses multisyllabic words more often. Lines 13–18 rely primarily on monosyllabic words to reinforce their message. Of a total of thirty-five words in those lines, twentyseven have just one syllable. The sound of these words being read can be called staccato. Their sound is rapid and hard, much like the sound of an automatic weapon being fired.
This staccato sound is unpleasant, especially after the lull of the longer, softer words in the first twelve lines. Nye’s message—we will perish if we cannot help one another—is underscored by her word choice. It is an urgent message, one not to be ignored. The reader has no choice but to notice it because Nye has made it blare out, like a car horn in the solitude of night.
Consonance is another musical device used in the construction of ‘‘Shoulders.’’ Consonance is the repetition of the same sound in short succession. Within the first five lines, Nye uses the soft blend sh three times. In a similar vein, she uses th twice in a three-word span. In lines 10–12, the reader hears the sound h five times. The soft sound of that consonant is almost like a lullaby, and readers let down their guard down just as Nye is about to assault them with the core message of her poem.
Nye foregoes the use of rhyme in her poem. Rhyming tends to give a poem a more lighthearted and frivolous quality. Nye’s tone in ‘‘Shoulders’’ is serious, almost reverent. She indicates her attitude toward the subject—father and son—with words denoting vulnerability and fragility. Rhyming has no place in this particular poem.
An alternative to rhyme is assonance, a technique in which vowel sounds are repeated in neighboring words. This stylistic choice adds to the flow of a poem or song. Lines 10 and 11 of ‘‘Shoulders’’ use the long ea sound four times in the scope of fourteen words. As she does with consonance, Nye uses assonance in this passage directly preceding her message, highlighting that message and making it all the more agitating.
Nye’s poetry, including ‘‘Shoulders,’’ is not difficult to understand. But the reason for this is not because it is basic or simplified. Nye has managed to fuse her musical sensibility into her poetry. Good music and good poetry share a dynamic that makes them intriguing and meaningful to both read and hear. Nye’s poetry shines because it can be felt—by the brain, the heart, and the ear. It is a sensual experience built by an artist who appreciates her craft as much as her end product. Booklist contributor Pat Monaghan said it well in a review of Red Suitcase: ‘‘Nye is a fluid poet, and her poems are also full of the urgency of spoken language. Her direct, unadorned vocabulary serves her well.’’
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Noami Shihab Nye, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010.
Rebecca Valentine, Critical Essay on ‘‘Shoulders,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.