The current poetry scene is fragmented, with the postmodernists, the followers of Ezra Pound and Charles Olsen, on one side and the neoformalists on the other. In the middle stand those who practice a free verse that is accessible to general readers of literature. The middle group often catches flak from both sides, from the postmodernists for insufficient intellectual density and from the neoformalists for not being controlled by rhyme and rhythm, the factors they believe make poetry. Yet with these “mainstream” poets lies the main hope of demarginalizing poetry. The middle voice has a strong champion in the appealing yet nuance-filled poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye.
If anyone’s poetry can open its audience out to a wider group of readers and listeners than other poets, it is Nye’s. Her appearance on the Bill Moyers series was more convincing than those of some of the later poets, as she has found a voice that is not self-indulgent although it is personal, and she has found a way to explore her ethnic identity in a way that includes the readers who do not share it.
A popular guest on campuses all over the United States, Nye has a way of pulling the listener into her poetry, not only by the poetry itself but also by her genuine interest into all that passes through her purview. Each of Nye’s readings is different, because the circumstance and audience are allowed to affect the selection and presentation. Nye has done much to bring contemporary poetry back to life, and life back to contemporary poetry. From her first chapbook in 1977 to her book of selected poems published in 1995, Nye has been the poet of the daily, the casual, the overlooked, and she has written of those things in such a way as to tap into their unexplored life. Her work has not gone unhonored: Her honors include two Voertman Poetry prizes, three Pushcart prizes, and the I. B. Lavan Award, as well as having her books twice designated “notable books” by the American Library Association.
Words Under the Words: Selected Poems is a selection of poems from three earlier collections: Different Ways to Pray (1980), Hugging the Jukebox (1982), and Yellow Glove (1986). In this vibrant collection, readers hear Nye’s voice in several different keys. A joyous naturism is balanced by a darker social criticism that describes the difficulties of the oppressed without the slightest trace of condescension, and then, especially in the later poems, there is an exploration of ethnicity—Nye’s Palestinian American background—in such a way as to make awareness of cultural heritage a value to be shared.
The themes of family and culture merge and reemerge in this collection, as the speaker is always aware of what it means to belong to a family or a culture. Identification with one’s heritage can be binding as well as liberating. The positive and negative valences of the cultural bond are explored in one of Nye’s earlier poems, “Biography of an Armenian Schoolgirl,” which comes from her first full-length collection, Different Ways to Pray. The schoolgirl has “lived in the room of stone,” where “you could dig/ for centuries uncovering the same sweet dust.” She looks at her future with a husband chosen for her: “Yesterday my father met with the widower, the man with no hair.” She thinks of the irony of her education and of other possibilities for her future besides the one that has been set out for her. At the end of the poem, she appears to have another schoolgirl as her double. The girl whose future is determined shares a bench with the girl whose future is open:
They teach physics, chemistry. I throw my book out the window,
watch the pages scatter like wings.
I stitch the professor’s jacket to the back of my chair.
There is something else we were born for.
I almost remember it. While I write, a ghost writes on the same tablet,
achieves a different sum.
The first section of Words Under the Words is a bright phantasmagoria of cultures, snapshots of California, Mexico, South America, and elsewhere. Yet these are not “travel poems”; they show a real sense of identification and participation, as is exemplified in “Biography of an Armenian Schoolgirl.” The collection from which “Biography of an Armenian Schoolgirl” comes was recognized for its craft and for its sensitive response to different cultures; it was awarded the Voertman Prize by the Texas Institute of Letters in 1980.
The middle section of Words Under the Words does contain a number of “travel poems”—that is, poems more concerned with the physicality...
(The entire section is 1912 words.)