17 pages 34 minutes read

Naomi Shihab Nye


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1980

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Summary and Study Guide


“Kindness” is a 34-line free verse poem by Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye. It was written in 1979 and originally appeared in her first full-length collection, Different Ways to Pray, in 1980. The poem was inspired by Nye’s lived experience while traveling through Columbia. It highlights the tragedy of life and encourages kindness and compassion in spite of it; it explores themes of equality, connection, and free will.

Poet Biography

Naomi Shihab Nye is an American poet, songwriter, and children’s fiction writer. She was born in 1952 in St. Louis to an American mother and a Palestinian refugee father. Her father left Palestine in 1948, shortly before Nye’s birth. His experiences and culture went on to inform much of Nye’s later work.

When she was a teenager, Nye and her family moved to San Antonio, Texas. Although Nye has traveled extensively throughout her career, San Antonio remains her home. She studied at Trinity University, Texas, and later went on to teach creative writing at Texas State University. Her first full-length poetry collection, Different Ways to Pray, explores the intersections of opposing cultures. Later collections included On the Edge of the Sky, Hugging the Jukebox, Yellow Glove, and Fuel. After the 9/11 attacks in New York, she released 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East to address the stigma and misrepresentations that arose around Arab American people. Nye has also written books for children, released a collection of essays, and edited several poetry anthologies.

Nye’s work has been recognized with a range of literary awards including Pushcart Prizes, the Jane Addams Children's Book Award, the Robert Creeley Award, and others. She was named the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature in 2013 laureate and the Poetry Foundation’s Young People's Poet Laureate in 2019. Her work is described as both transcendent and accessible for a range of readers. Her work often deals with cross-cultural themes, tolerance, and destigmatization. She continues to live and teach in San Antonio.

Poem Text

Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Kindness.” 1980. Poets.org.


The speaker implores the reader to learn the art of kindness, cautioning that before they can understand it fully, they first have to understand loss. By having something precious and then losing it, one is able to see how empty the world can be without kindness in it. When one is in the midst of loss, the days seem to go on forever, and nothing changes. The speaker continues, explaining that true kindness can’t be comprehended without understanding that death comes for everyone, regardless of how much one prepares for the road ahead. Death’s reality should make readers aware of their own mortality, and the fragility of their life, in a new way.

But it is not enough to experience loss and distant death; to know kindness fully and completely, one needs to experience grief. Grief is the deepest loss of all, and it connects to everything else in the world. Once you have experienced the sorrow of grief, you learn that kindness is the only thing that keeps you going through the day. Kindness keeps you company and follows you always.