Study Guide

Famous Sound Check

By Naomi Shihab Nye

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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.

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