Nye’s poem is a word picture of one very brief moment in time: A father carries his son across a street to safety. But everything in that slice of life is representative or symbolic of something bigger. The father is Everyman (the representative of humankind in medieval morality plays). He is every person in the world, just as his son is every child or weaker person in need of human kindness.
The act of carrying the boy across the street is symbolic of any act of kindness, be it carrying someone, caring for someone in time of sickness, teaching a child a new skill, or anything else. The road in this poem is life’s journey, which Nye is saying will always be wide, never easy, and not something one can travel alone. The rain symbolizes the hardship and obstacles every person faces in life. There will always be rain; there will always be hardship.
‘‘Shoulders’’ is written as free verse: It does not rhyme, and there is no consistent meter or rhythmic pattern. By choosing to write the poem in this style, Nye allows herself and the reader to focus on language rather than form as a way to understand the poem’s meaning without being preoccupied with rhythm or line length. Instead, she uses specific words to make the reader feel the scene she is portraying.
Varied Points of View
‘‘Shoulders’’ begins with the third-person point of view. Nye tells the reader what is happening. In line 13, she switches to first person plural, thereby involving the reader and herself in the scene. By implementing two points of view, she is forcing the reader not only to accept what she is saying but to claim ownership, in a way. She is saying, in effect, ‘‘Here’s how it is. If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’’ The reader is no longer watching the scene unfold, but is actually participating in it.
Synesthesia is a condition in which one’s senses are blended. For example, music has both a sound and a color associated with it. Food has a taste and a color. For some synesthetes, every letter of the alphabet appears in a particular color. Nye blends the senses in her poem. The man uses sight to look up and down the street. He hears his son’s breathing and feels the rain falling. By incorporating several of the senses, the reader has a vivid image of the father carrying the son across the road.
Poetry as Conversation
In an interview with Teri Lesesne for Teacher Librarian, Nye explains that ‘‘poetry is the closest genre to the way we think, in images with leaping connections, metaphorically, sometimes in fragments. We should feel very at home with it.’’ Her understanding of poetry as a way of seeing and saying something is what makes her poems accessible. ‘‘Shoulders’’ uses no difficult words that must be looked up in a dictionary to understand. There is no rhyme or technical format. Nothing about the poem is forced. Each line just is what it is, in tone and in length. It is a perfect reflection of what Nye means when she describes poetry as the closest genre to the way people think.
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.