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Kindness Summary

(Poetry for Students)

Lines 1-2

The first two lines of "Kindness" establish a premise that runs throughout the poem: Before a person knows one thing, he or she must know something else. (The "you" in this work refers simply to the universal "you," or people in general, not to a specific person.) In this case, the real meaning of kindness, which seems easy to understand, is shown to be more complex than one may realize. The speaker suggests, ironically, that to "know what kindness really is," first "you must lose things."

Lines 3-4

Instead of explaining what the opening lines mean right away, the speaker relies on an intriguing metaphor to make the point. (A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares an intended concept or thing to something unrelated as a way to clarify the original intention.) The speaker wants to describe how the future can "dissolve in a moment," so she compares it to "salt" dissolving "in a weakened broth." The notion of losing all of one's tomorrows is a frightening prospect, and likening it to something as easy as salt blending into soup makes it all the more chilling. The first thing "you must lose" to know true kindness, then, is a hefty loss indeed.

Lines 5-9

Lines 5 through 9 provide further examples of what one must lose to know kindness. "What you held in your hand" may be an infinite number of items, but the implication is that it is something significant enough and dear enough that someone would want to hold it close. The subject of line 6 is clearer. "What you counted and carefully saved" refers to money, a vital commodity in most people's lives. Even these precious items "must go" before one can comprehend "how desolate the landscape can be / between the regions of kindness." In other words, one must give up the good things in life to understand how bad and how barren living can be during times of hardship and sorrow.

Lines 10-13

Line 10 connects directly to line 8, beginning with "How" and developing the idea that only total loss can remove the blinders that many people wear when it comes to seeing reality as it is. The bus rider is guilty of ignoring the suffering and injustice that others endure by "thinking the bus will never stop" and believing that the other passengers will continue their pleasant and endless journey while "eating maize and chicken" and gazing benignly "out the window forever." The word "maize" insinuates that the other bus riders are natives of the land, because it is a word for corn derived from an extinct Latin American language and translated by the Spanish. Maize is sometimes referred to as "Indian corn."

Lines 14-16

Throughout the first three stanzas, lines 1 to 13, examples of the opposite side of kindness grow more serious and more depressing: from the future as dissolving salt, losing something once held dear, and forfeiting a life's savings to the lonely, haunting death of an unknown Indian who "lies dead by the side of the road," seemingly of no concern to those who pass by. The phrase "tender gravity" implies the fickle and fragile nature of kindness, and it is this deepest level that one needs to reach to understand kindness. The word "tender" also is a startling opposite of the senseless inhumanity in letting the dead lie in the street without the benefit or respect of proper treatment.

Lines 17-20

Lines 17 through 20 are perhaps the most poignant in the poem. They make a remarkably strong human-to-human connection between the forgotten dead Indian and every person who passes by—the "you" in general. The vital message is that what happens to the Indian can happen to anyone in the world. The words "this could be you" bring the poem's message down to the gut level: Regardless of one's ethnicity or race, economic status, nationality, educational level, or any other defining characteristic, human beings are all "someone … with plans / and the simple breath" that keeps them alive. This theme not only is pertinent in "Kindness" but also permeates much of Nye's work. Its reflection on her...

(The entire section is 1,292 words.)