Study Guide

Famous Analysis

  • Sound Check

    This poem sounds like a dictionary—or maybe more like what we sound like when we don't have a dictionary close by. No, really. You know how when you know what a word means but you can't figure out how to say it, so you just have to give lots of examples and hope the person that you are talking to gets the definition from that? Well, that's what this poem sounds like to us. Actually, that is exactly what it is: if Nye just came right out and read us the Webster's definition of "famous" this would be a pretty unpoetic poem.

    Plus Nye has one sly trick up her sleeve, and that's the letter S. If you read the poem aloud to yourself, you might find yourself hissing a bit more than usual, kind of like that cat in line 5. When he wakes up, we bet he'll be hissing up a storm at those pesky birds. And you'll be hissing up a storm, too. The repetition of the word famous with its S at the end is enough to begin with. But then there are all those other S sounds, too: "silence" (2), "said so" (4), "sleeping […] fence" (5), and "birdhouse" (6).

    And that's just the beginning. The rest of the poem is seeping S's, too. So what do we call this trick, and what's its effect? Luckily, poetry has a term for everything, and the repetition of S sounds is no exception. We call it sibilance, and when it's used in a poem, it often helps slow the poem down. All those S sounds in "Famous" cause us to linger over the sounds, which conveniently gives us time to ponder all of the speaker's deep thoughts.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    We don't think Nye spent a lot of time coming up with the title to this one. For one thing, it pretty simply tells us what the topic of the poem is. She also uses the word famous a total of fourteen times in the text of the poem. So, perhaps she was just aiming for a nice, neat fifteenth time. Either that, or she already had a poem called "Pulleys and Buttonholes."

  • Setting

    We like to imagine a film version of "Famous" in which every line corresponds to a scene in a slow-moving montage set to some Zen music for meditation. We open into the murky waters of a fast-rushing river overflowing with fish. Next is the lone voice shouting in the wilderness or something like that. We see the yellow cat carefully curled up at a corner of the fence, just a few yards from the little wooden bird house in flaking red paint…you get the idea.

    With every line we leap to a new place, but the ending of the poem makes us think that we've been standing in a grocery line all this time and all those images in lines 1-14 are the fast-moving thoughts of a very perceptive grocery buyer. And of course that's precisely the point. With a little imagination, and a little kindness, we can find fame just about everywhere we look.

  • Speaker

    Our speaker is a deep thinker—an observer of the world. She says things like "The loud voice is famous to silence" (2), and that seems pretty deep to us. No matter what she says, she blows our minds, every time.

    She is somebody who is interested in nature: she talks about rivers being famous to fish, and sleeping cats being famous to birds. We like to imagine her going on an awful lot of hikes. In fact, we kind of want to join.

    We also think that she probably notices things that others may overlook. Why do we think that? One word: buttonhole.

    Plus, she understands the importance of choosing the proper shoe for the occasion (remember all that talk about boots being famous to the earth and dress shoes being important to floors?). She's got great style, and isn't afraid to get down and dirty in some work boots.

    Honestly, our speaker sounds awesome. And to top it all off, she seems nice. While everyone else in the grocery line is complaining about the extreme-couponer holding up traffic, or engrossed in entertainment magazines reporting on the Kardashians, our speaker is smiling at the cute, sticky-faced kid in the cart in front of her (17).

    She isn't caught up in all the surrounding madness. That makes us think that she probably is a woman with her priorities in order. And that makes us think that we probably could learn a thing or two from her. So we should probably read pretty closely.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    The language is pretty simple, and Nye does us a favor by using lots of real life examples that are easy for us to imagine. On the other hand, though, with every stanza our focus shifts and the definition of fame expands some. There's no way we can grasp all these definitions—and how they contrast with one another—without a couple of readings. So once you're finished, start all over again. You'll probably want to anyway, because this poem is a joy.

  • Calling Card

    Random Characters & Everyday Objects

    Nye is famous—sorry, we couldn't resist—for writing poems about ordinary objects and events, which she approaches from an unexpected angle. In fact, Nye revealed that, for her, "the primary source of poetry has always been local life, random characters met on the streets, our own ancestry sifting down to us through small essential daily tasks" (source). We're guessing that the smiling exchange with the sticky kid in the grocery line was inspired by real events.

  • Form and Meter

    Free Verse

    The ironic thing about free verse poetry is that it isn't exactly free. On one hand, the poet doesn't have to closely obey any specific rules about syllables or rhymes and what not. It's a regular hootenanny. But on the other hand, the poet still has to pay attention to form—or else the poem isn't a poem at all; it's just a prose paragraph. Like one of our fave poets T.S. Eliot said, "No verse is [free] for the man who wants to do a good job" (oh, and we're sure he meant that to apply to female poets too).

    Nye sticks to the poetic form by dividing her poem into lines and stanzas, and using a consistent pattern throughout the poem. Each stanza deals with a different example of a famous item, and the first line of each stanza tells us about the item and whom or what it is famous to. For example, the first line states The river is famous to the fish. She follows that up with: The loud voice is famous to silence. Then she writes: The cat…is famous to the birds… See what we mean? It goes on and on like that until it takes a turn around line 15.

    She also makes use of lots of snazzy poetic tools-of-the-trade—things like repetition (we're looking at you, "famous") and the imagery of ordinary life. (If the suspense is killing you, click on over to the "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section for more examples from her arsenal. But then be sure to head on back here.)

    Still, Nye's using free verse here, which means she's ignoring a lot of common and accepted poetic devices, like rhyme, simile, and meter. Could that have some sort of thematic link, do you think? We think so, even if we aren't quite sure what that is. Maybe, by flouting traditional poetic devices, she's reminding us that we shouldn't so readily accept the things we readily accept. Fame isn't about what's famous. It's about what's important. And in her case, that's not rhyme.

  • Fame

    We assume you saw this one coming.

    With the repetition of the word famous applied to unexpected situations, Nye shakes up our notions of fame, big time. In fact, we can almost think of the word famous as a kind of repeated refrain that slowly persuades us that we've been going about this whole 'getting-famous-thing' in the wrong way. People who are totally into poems call this anaphora. That's when the poet deliberately repeats a word or a phrase at the beginning of lines or stanzas, as in "The ______ is famous to the _______." Nye's pattern of "such and such is famous to so and so" qualifies as big time anaphora. But don't take our word for it. Take a peek for yourself:

    • Line 1: In these lines, our anaphora begins. Here, famous is used in the sense of important. That river is pretty important to those fish, because without it, they'd have nowhere to live. (Oh, and—let's face it—they'd probably drown.)
    • Line 2: Okay, so the loud voice famous to silence because silence needs the loud voice to exist so that it can exist, too, right? (If this logic seems a little foggy, check out the "Line-by-Line Summary" for a clearer explanation.)
    • Line 5: That cat sounds famous in the sense that it could really have an impact on those birds. Or maybe the speaker is talking about fame with the connotation of predator and prey, not unlike our modern definition with celebrities "hunted" by the press—paparazzi, anyone?
    • Line 7: The fact that the tear is famous to the cheek reminds us that even if the interaction is brief, something can still have an important impact. Fame helps the mundane get noticed.

    And, there is a lot more where this came from, but we think you get the idea of repetition and anaphora. Don't you feel brilliant and famous?

  • The Everyday

    "Famous" is all about making us feel rather uncomfortable with our definition of fame. What better way to make us question everything we know than to give us a list of insignificant things that would certainly never make the cover of the National Enquirer, and then tell us how famous they all are? We wouldn't have thought to do this either. That's why Nye's the poet, and Shmoop's, well, not. But hey, at least we're here to help.

    • Lines 1, 3, 6, 19-21: Practically this entire poem is an extended metaphor for how the ordinary should be seen as extraordinary (hence, famous) for doing exactly whatever it can do. Line 1 gives us rivers and fish, line 3 presents birds and cats, line 6 focuses on boots of all things, and then, in the grand finale, we celebrate buttonholes and pulleys. You don't get much more everyday than that. 
    • Lines 1, 2, 5, 7, 10: Nye is a bit of a master when it comes to a little something we like to call parallelism. She begins each of these lines with an example of an ordinary item (a river, a cat, a tear… you get the idea) that is famous according to her definition, but very unfamous according to society's. Then, each line ends by telling us whom the item is famous to. Check it out; if you line up all those lines right on top of each other, they even look parallel. 
    • Lines 3, 7, 20: Another cool tool Nye uses is personification, which is attributing all kinds of feelings and emotions to ordinary objects—things that can't feel at all. For example, the silence in Line 3 can't actually know. It's silence! But Nye makes it know.
    • Line 15-18: The image of the shuffling men crossing streets and the sticky children in grocery lines emphasizes that fame is more about the little people you impact and not what you do. 
    • Lines 19-20: Likewise, the speaker's desire to be like a pulley or a buttonhole stresses how ordinary she is aiming to be. That's the paradox of the poem-- in just being ordinary and doing what we can, we will actually be extraordinary. 
  • Nature

    When we think about Fame—the condition of famousness, not the campy 80s movie loved by retro-hipsters everywhere—the last thing we think of is nature. Well, maybe forces of nature. But still, we have a hard time comparing Lady Gaga to a cat sleeping on a fence, even if she does show up at the Grammy Awards in a cat suit. Sure this poem features a cat and some birds engaged in the circle of life, but did you notice how many times Nye mentions 'the earth'? Well, it is only two, but we still think it is important because so many of her examples describe the natural world just doing what it naturally does, and that makes it famous.

    • Line 1: Fish? Rivers? Sounds pretty natural to us. 
    • Line 3: There's that "earth." Such a word choice suggests nature, but in this case, it's also an allusion to Matthew 5:5. In a way, we might think of this as emphasizing the supremacy of nature. When all of humanity, with all our jabbering, is gone, the silence will still be there, happily enjoying the earth it inherited. 
    • Line 5: This cat is just going about his business, doing what cats naturally do, which is, of course, nap.
    • Lines 7, 8, 13: And here are some examples of things people naturally do—feel (7) and imagine (8), and of course love other people (13).
    • Line 10: There's that earth again, and this time, it's being used quite literally. She's talking about the earth—the dirt on which we walk in our boots.
  • Proximity

    Also known as closeness. More than 15 million people follow Shakira on Twitter. We think it is safe to say she is famous. (We also think she has an unfair advantage since she is bilingual and can reach more people. It's enough to make us sign up for a Spanish course.) But, how many people have ever actually looked Shakira in the eye; or, more importantly, how many people's eyes has Shakira looked into? Well, Nye pretty much says that if you aren't close enough to make eye contact, you just ain't as famous as you think you are. Take that, Shakira.

    • Line 1: The river is famous to the fish because the fish are surrounded by it. They're close.
    • Line 5-6: The only reason those birds are concerned with the cat is because he is close enough to be dangerous. That old adage about keeping your enemies close is not something these birds abide by.
    • Line 7: That tear is only famous because it is sitting right there on the cheek. 
    • Line 10-12: The boot is famous to the earth because it comes into direct contact with earth with each step it takes—unlike that stuffy old dress shoe, which insists on walking on marble (or at least linoleum). 
    • Line 15-18: And, then there is that whole smiling back—you can only smile back if you are close enough to see the original smile, and close enough for your own smile to be seen. Plus, part of the definition of fame here is making a direct impact. All those famous things listed in lines 1-14 are making a direct impact, a physical one, which is what we should want to do as well. But, you've got to be close enough to matter.
    • Steaminess Rating


      The erotic climax of 'Famous' occurs in lines 8-9 of the poem, where an idea gets rather cuddly with a bosom. Now, usually we wouldn't consider this a particularly titillating scene, but we like the word bosom and we like to think that that idea is happy pressed up against that bosom.

      And anyway, it's a lot sexier than the shuffling men who smile while crossing the street.