Thursday, April 2, 2009

Famous - Naomi Shihab Nye


The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

---Naomi Shihab Nye

Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye

Think fast: I’ll buy you an ice cream sundae if you can name the last “famous” American poet? Billy Collins? Nope. Maya Angelou? Not exactly who I had mind. Allen Ginsburg? You could make a case for him too, but no. Elizabeth Bishop? That’s wishful thinking. Try Robert Frost. Most of us would agree that gracing a cover of a mainstream news magazine would qualify as famous and by that barometer Robert Frost’s October 9, 1950 appearance on the cover of Time Magazine makes him the last “famous” American poet.* These days, if you’re a poet, well, you’re not concerned with fame. That ship sailed in the nineteenth century or even earlier. Poetry strangely defies the fame-at-all-costs culture that has infected America over the last half century. While some poets live ferociously, they are just as likely to retreat to a comfortable place where they can observe the world around them, to camoflague themselves from the unnecessary distractions of modern life, including fame. Without getting too far off topic, let me rant on fame for a moment. We live in a time in our country where fame is an all-powerful currency. If you’re famous then you’re more likely to receive special benefits and get away with immoral and illegal behavior. Ninety five percent of the people who are “famous” these days do not deserve the smallest morsel of fame. Tabloid journalism and reality television have created a template for stereotypically beautiful people with few brain cells and even fewer skills and talents to push themselves into the spotlight. At this rate, we need real, pure art, created not for the sake of getting noticed, but for the sake of needing to be expressed. We need art that stirs us, that makes us think, that riles us up with questions and calms us with the refined beauty of a well-practiced craft. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you poetry: the anti-fame.

Sometimes my examples are highfalutin, but I’m going a little more mainstream with this next one. To truly understand how fame is not immune to time, place, or even logic, consider David Hasslehoff. Sure, he was famous the world over for his hairy-chested gallivanting across sunny beaches on Baywatch, but his largest level of fame is not attributable to his acting talents. For years the “Hoff” recorded albums that barely got a listen in the United States, while over in Germany these albums skyrocketed up the pop charts. David Hasslehoff was the German equivalent of Elvis or Frank Sinatra. This may be hard to believe, but I can’t think of a clearer way to illustrate that fame is directly connected to tastes, trends, and circumstances.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Famous” is a witty commentary on the nature of fame. She solidly links a chain of metaphors to prove this point: fame, like many classifying adjectives, is merely a matter of perception. Shihab Nye takes this idea and runs with it. “The river is famous to the fish,” begins the poem with a firm, yet calm stoicism. But all examples of fame are not this peaceful. In matters of being heard, “the loud voice is famous to silence,” but not as one might expect. Shihab Nye asserts that silence has the overarching power in this relationship, after all silence “knew it would inherit the earth / before anybody said so.” In matters of hunting and being hunted, “The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds / watching him from the birdhouse.” And in matters of two opposites, joy and sadness, “The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.” It’s hard to read these examples and not think of yourself. How are you famous? Who are you famous to? Who carries a “bent photograph” of you? And who is in the “bent photograph” you carry? Some of our smallest actions might remain in the minds of others forever, keeping us famous in memory without our knowledge of such fame.

If we’re lucky we have control of our own fame and the circumstances surrounding it, but the larger our fame grows the weaker our grip becomes. Naomi Shihab Nye realizes this and is perfectly fine pursuing an existence which does not have an end goal of movie posters and magazine covers. She wants a more personal and meaningful fame, a fame shared among “shuffling men / who smile while crossing streets” and “sticky children in grocery lines.” She wants to be as famous in their minds as “the one who smiled back” is in her own mind. She knows the lingering impact this person has had on her, how he has created a space for himself in her memory. Examining how he did this, Shihab Nye determines it was done without grandeur or drawing attention, it was done simply. This helps her narrow down exactly the nature of fame she desires and it provides a fitting end to the poem. Nye writes, “I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous, / or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular, / but because it never forgot what it could do.” For Naomi Shihab Nye, fame isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free-card or a means of making a living, instead fame is a personal commitment. She wants to be useful and consistent, not consumed with herself, but rather with a valuable work that few pause to consider---and those who do pause possess vision and perspective.

* A strange-looking, sculpted version of Robert Lowell’s head appeared on the cover of the June 2, 1967 edition of Time Magazine. So Lowell is technically the last American poet to appear on the cover of Time to the best of my knowledge. But let’s be honest, was Robert Lowell ever as famous as Robert Frost?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the interpretation, much appreciation

Matthew A Kaberline said...

You're welcome Jburt07. I'm glad you enjoyed the essay. After not including a Naomi Shihab Nye poem in the first year of my poetry blog, I knew that I had to include her somehow in the second year. She's one of my favorites. I hope you'll check back in April 2010 when I start year three of my national poetry month blog.

All the best,

cadh22 said...

This was an amazing interpretation, it helped me so much. You opened up a whole new idea of the poem to me. thank you so much!

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Cadh22, thanks for those comments. I'm glad I could help you appreciate Famous!

Hello, here goes: said...

Naomi Shihab Nye has crafted a poem that 'enwords' the ephemeral beauty of the ordinary life. My life, in fact is made golden with little moments all the time, but I sometimes forget how important that is, so thank Naomi for her poem and you for posting it.

I have to say that the lure and the romantic picture of fame/power/wealth that is thrust upon us from every conceivable avenue is inherently seductive. Very few among us does not want whatever MORE means, myself included. I am hoping to re-focus and this is a help.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for posting this essay. I understand it a little bit more. I got a chuckle out of the part where you talked about Robert Frost too.. (: