Much of Nye’s poetry is about humanitarianism and people caring for one another. ‘‘Shoulders’’ is no exception. A father carries his son across the street. He looks both ways, twice. He is very careful to get his boy safely to the other side. In lines 13–16, Nye says that people must be willing to care for and protect one another when such benevolence is required because there will always be hardship, and life’s journey is long.
The poem is only eighteen lines long, yet within that framework Nye has made her point clear: Life is not just about the individual’s needs and desires. It is about caring for others, going out of one’s way to see that they are protected and their needs are met.
The father in the poem has been entrusted with his son’s care. The small boy knows he is in good hands. He is comfortable enough to fall asleep, even as rain falls upon him. Nye indicates the boy’s breathing is regular, a hum. It is an easy sleep, deep enough that he dreams. His father, knowing he is responsible for caring for his son, protects him from splashes, from traffic, and from danger. Knowing his son is fragile and needs the father in order to grow up, the father faces the rain, ignoring his own comfort, and focuses on getting his son to safety and warmth. He will do this thousands of times throughout the boy’s life, if not literally, then figuratively.
Nye underscores this theme of trust in her word choice. She emphasizes the fragility and vulnerability of the child, using words that would apply to something of value that is being sent out into the world. That value is ascribed to the child in the poem, and lines 4 and 5 suggest the father’s awareness of the value as well as his son’s trust in him.
A single person not only can but must make a difference. This is a strong message in Nye’s poem. It is up to each person to take responsibility for the well-being of others. The boy is tired; he is fragile, and so the father helps him and protects him. Nye says if people are not willing to reach out and give of themselves, no one will survive.
Throughout her career, Nye has attempted to use poetry as a means of cross-cultural communication. While recognizing the needs and rights of individuals in society, her poetry— ‘‘Shoulders’’ included—stresses the idea that all concerns are universal. In this instance, all children are important and fragile. They must be handled with care on an individual basis, as well as at a societal level. In lines 13–16, Nye switches from singular pronouns to plural, applying the individual example to all of us.
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.