With Encouragement and Heart: Naomi Shihab Nye

The author of many books and recipient of many awards, Naomi Shihab Nye has captured her readers through vivid descriptions and symbolism illustrating heritage, peace, and her experiences as an Arab-American.

Poet William Stafford said, “Her poems combine transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight. She is a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart. Reading her work enhances life.” Perhaps being in tune with her heritage as an Arab-American is the key to poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s unique worldview.

Nye grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas. She received her B.A. in English and world religions from Trinity University. She went on to publish many books and poems that reaped rewards from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Carity Randall Prize, the International Poetry Forum, to four Pushcart Prizes. In 1988, she received The Academy of American Poets' Lavan Award, selected by W. S. Merwin.

Nye, though eager for her audience to understand bigger issues, loneliness and belonging, knows the exact balance of warmth and desire in order to gain acceptance.

In “My Friend’s Divorce,” Nye writes:

"Take the blooming
and the almost blooming
and the dormant
especially the dormant
and then
plant them in her new yard
on the other side
of town
and see how
they breathe."

The garden she writes of symbolizes life. She truly cares about a friend of hers and wants her to detach and move on. We each have our own gardens, our lives, and we need to take care of them.

“Books We Haven’t Touched in Years” shows the farmer overlooking his field, symbolizes his dreams. She says, “He doesn’t dance/ beside the road”. This line catches you off guard; we are usually told what happens, rather than what does not happen. We are left with the farmer wondering what could have happened, and an uncomfortable feeling of emptiness, bare as the farmer’s cornfields.

Nye’s prose poem, “Blood” stages issues in the Middle East as real images and objects. We see Arabs and snakes, Images of stone, seed, and stitched mats. Nye brings up others’ perceptions of Arabs, as some probably see their beliefs as ridiculous and inconsistent, with healings and gods. She says, “True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways. I changed these to fit the occasion”.

We rarely see the other side of current issues in the news. Nye writes, “Where can the crying heart graze?” Who should her people turn to? Will anyone believe or accept her when she needs someone to listen and to aid in mending her heart?

“Two Countries” identifies the separation we feel from those unlike ourselves. With the line, “Love means you breathe in two countries," Nye pinpoints the essence of love: living for yourself and for someone else, breathing as they breathe, and accepting every part of them.

We sense a twinge of bitterness in “Steps” because “paint dries more quickly in English”. It is unfair for us to think everything is better in America. Others must float through the streets like fish and dive deep to the bottom to get a taste of “The New World.”

Nye writes with encouragement and heart. Remembering her roots is essential to the gentle, and emotional feel of her poetry. Through her eyes, we see a striving for peace and want to communicate the importance of heritage. Nye does this excellently, with her talent for descriptions and uncanny eye for detail.


Works by Naomi Shihab Nye

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.