In the first lines of ‘‘Shoulders,’’ Nye gives the reader a focal point: a father carrying his sleeping son on his shoulder in the rain. He looks both ways and carefully crosses the street. The reader immediately knows he is a gentle and careful father, protective of his son. He is aware of both what he can and cannot see, and he will let no harm come to his boy. Readers are focused on the father.
The reader’s attention shifts to the child. The boy is the most precious cargo in the world, yet nowhere is he obviously marked as such. This section of the poem reflects Nye’s belief in the value of children, as well as the father’s feeling. The reader is again told beyond doubt that the child is both precious and fragile.
In writing about Nye for The Progressive, journalist Robert Hirschfield says her poetry is characterized by a ‘‘deep listening quality.’’ The center section of ‘‘Shoulders’’ is an illustration of this quality. In lines 10–12, Nye brings the man and boy together in the reader’s eye as she blends senses: The father hears his son’s breathing. The boy hums as he dreams. The reader can almost hear as well as see these three lines because Nye has infused them with a sensual quality.
A major shift occurs in these final lines as Nye writes in first person and thereby draws the reader into the scene she has created. The man is no longer just one man, nor is his son just one son. They represent every individual in the world. Nye’s core message appears in this section: People must be willing to go out of their way to help one another or they cannot survive. Without human kindness, life’s journey will be long and fraught with one obstacle after another.
Reaching out to help and love each other is, in ‘‘Shoulders,’’ what makes life worth living. More than that, it makes life possible.
Nye relies on literary technique to convey this message. The tone of the poem changes at line 13, making the reader aware that this is new territory; the real message of the poem lies ahead. Whereas lines 1–12 make careful use of imagery and sound so that the tone is almost a whisper, lines 13–18 do not use either. Nye uses abrupt words and hard consonant sounds such as t and d. In doing so, she startles the reader out of the lull that she creates in the previous twelve lines, as if to say ‘‘Wake up!’’
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.