Study Guide

Famous Lines 15-21

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Lines 15-21

Lines 15-18

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

  • If the first seven stanzas of this poem describe to us what the author means by famous, then the last two stanzas are the wrap-up—the conclusion—of the poem. 
  • Brace yourselves, Shmoopers. We're about to find out why we were being told about fame to begin with. 
  • But first, let's recap what we've seen so far, just so we're all on the same page. 
  • First of all, we have come to understand that fame is relational—that means that something can only be famous to something else. You can't be famous in a vacuum. You can't be famous all by your little lonesome. Something is only famous if someone (or something) else considers it to be famous. 
  • But we also have to consider the fact that famous can mean different things. According to our awesome speaker, it can mean important, needed, impactful, interacting (however briefly). 
  • Now that we've got those two conditions under our belt, let's figure out what the speaker's saying in these lines in particular. 
  • Our speaker wants to interact with, have and impact on, or otherwise be important or needed by shuffling men and sticky children. Uh… really?
  • Really. 
  • Let's tackle these shuffling men. They sound old, feeble, maybe not as mobile as they used to be. They've seen better days. 
  • Then we've got these tiny, sticky kiddos with candy. Oh, and they're in grocery lines. These are the kids who are momentarily ignored by their parents, who are too busy paying the cashier to worry about where the kid's eyes are aimed at the moment. 
  • So here are two segments of society that are often overlooked because they are NOT important: the elderly and children. They're opposites, sure, but the one thing they have in common is that people often fail to pay them proper attention. 
  • The speaker thinks the act of smiling back at them—of not overlooking them as so many others do—will make her famous (or important) to them. 
  • She can have a real impact—even a brief one—on them by this simple act of kindness.
  • Ah, so smiling is what makes a person famous. Or at least it makes the speaker famous.

Lines 19-21

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

  • A pulley and a buttonhole are not spectacular. Really, how many times have you ever stopped to consider all the ways that the buttonhole has had an impact on your life? We're guessing you've never paused to gaze fondly at your buttonhole and tell it how much you value its unique ability to hold a button in place. 
  • But, now that we are talking about it, take a moment and think about it. What would you do without all those buttonholes? They are not spectacular. Buttonholes certainly aren't going to end world hunger or cure cancer, but a buttonhole never forgets what it can do, and it does what it can spectacularly well. Without buttons, how would we ever keep warm? How would our pants stay up? Seriously.
  • A pulley is a very simple machine made of a wheel and a cable that permits the lifting of really heavy stuff—like elevators. If you've ever used a weight-lifting machine, you've seen a pulley. Modern society would be pretty tough without pulleys, and not just because the gym wouldn't have a Bowflex. We'd never get to work in our skyscrapers. 
  • See, the speaker wants to be famous like that. She doesn't want to do anything spectacular. But, she believes that doing the little that she can do will mean that she can have an impact on others. And, perhaps, if she has enough of an impact, she will end up on the cover of People.
  • So remember that, Shmoopers, the next time you consider trying out for Paris Hilton's My New BFF. It might be easier just to smile at the dude who delivers your mail. 

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