The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

“Sincerely” is a cleverly constructed seventy-nine-line poem about the art and craft of letter writing. Its author, inspired by her Palestinian American heritage and extensive travels to Asia, the Middle East, and Central America, considers correspondence from friends, family, and strangers a fascinating subject. She begins the six-part poem by describing envelopes as “usually white and slim,/ bleached as a shell we might press to our ears.” Letters, she suggests, are full of mystery, humor, pathos, and joy. Within the first few lines, Naomi Shihab Nye poses several thought-provoking questions about letters: What are their unique shapes and sizes? Where do they travel in their long journey from one place to another? What do they bring us? Most important, what do they demand from us?

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As if to illustrate the answers, Nye shares brief portions of five letters, each presumably a response to an earlier epistle. The first begins “Thank you. The articles about raising children/ arrived when my child was being very difficult.” Sometimes letters come with much needed advice. Unfortunately, in this particular case the narrator lost the parenting articles before she could put their helpful hints to use. Nevertheless, because she is grateful for the kind gesture, in return she encloses a brochure listing places to buy Hawaiian clothing in Texas, “should you have a need.” With this exchange Nye humorously illustrates that letters provide an avenue for reciprocal sharing of a wealth of information, some useful, some fanciful.

The poem’s second section opens with a letter writer’s familiar apology: “I am sorry I did not answer for so long.” As if to explain, the writer describes an important professional project that has consumed all her time; it involves writing to poets in sixty-eight countries asking for permission to publish their poems. This daunting letter-writing task, which costs 95 cents per letter, has prevented the speaker from penning personal letters to friends. She attempts to correct this situation in part 3 by responding to a woman who has lived on an island her entire life but who is now leaving. Ironically, the narrator longs to revisit the island, whose beauty has stayed with her since her visit many years before: “your island/ stays lodged inside me, a mint/ I turn over and over with my tongue for its endless/ flavor.” It is apparent that the two writers would like to change places, just as their letters do, but they cannot.

In section 4 the speaker marvels at how the mail system permits individuals who barely met, “barely brushed one another” in the rush of life, to become friends and to share ideas, books, and cherished possessions that link their diverse communities. The final section appropriately celebrates the wonder and richness of new acquaintances who arrive by mail with a hello “so long and wide/ whole countries live inside it.” These enlightening and welcome missives bring descriptions of each tree and corner in another part of the world. Ending the poem with a return to shape and size, Nye symbolically suggests that letters should be made in the shape of kites to ride “the ache of breeze” that lies between the correspondents.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

Figurative language abounds in Nye’s lively poem about the power of the written word. Engaging the reader’s fancy, she employs personification to explore the human qualities of letters. She calls them “travelers” who journey through “slots and chutes and shelves and bags” and then, because often it is a very long and tiring journey, fall asleep in the narrator’s black mailbox. When she slices open the letters with the blade of a small knife taken from “a case carved like a fish,” this simple gesture “opens a far world” as news from friends and family pours forth, “cranking the creaky door of the heart.” Sometimes, visited by an “impudent question,” she wonders if she is equal to the task of responding. Like the words of the letters she receives, Nye’s words touch and enlighten readers. Poet William Stafford has praised Nye’s poetry for combining “transcendent liveliness and sparkle along with warmth and human insight.” He calls her “a champion of encouragement and heart.”

One reason for Naomi Shihab Nye’s appeal is her skillful use of metaphor to examine gently the interplay of countries and cultures. In the third section, the letter to her island friend, the speaker compares her memory of the island to a mint, rolling around on her tongue as she absorbs and savors the flavor. This sweetness sharply contrasts with the other woman’s aching desire to leave the same island. Her friend wears “the colors of the horizon inside [her] bruise,” suggesting that the reality of her life is surely nothing like the speaker’s delicious island memory. One of the ways readers come to understand the complexity of other cultures is by sharing stories. Nye introduces this intimacy through juxtaposed events, images, and bits of dialogue, which in a sense become for the reader an overheard long-distance conversation.

The poetic discourse of “Sincerely” consists of a series of questions, of the sort one typically asks friends in correspondence, such as “Yes, I am fine.What about you?” and, in reference to a long lapse between letters, “Can you be patient?” Later in the poem, as she ponders sending a woolen doll from Chiapas to a new friend, she asks, “Do you want her?” The questioning draws readers into the epistolary exchange, and although they hear only half the conversation, they may occasionally be tempted to answer, to slip into a new role, thereby better understanding cultures outside their own experience. Nye elicits this reader response so subtly that the effect may be overlooked.

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