“Good Bones” poem by Maggie Smith is a powerful poem that reflects on the harsh realities of life and the world’s imperfections. The speaker acknowledges the brevity of life and the challenges it presents but also encourages finding beauty within it. This single-stanza poem resonates with its repetition and a message of hope, making it a poignant exploration of the human experience.
By Maggie Smith
Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
read full at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/89897/good-bones
This poem originally appeared in Waxwing, Issue 10, in June 2016. Used with permission of the author.
In Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” the tone is contemplative and sober, marked by the speaker’s deep reflection on the transient nature of life and the stark realities of the world. The poem is tinged with the pain of understanding and the sorrow of disillusionment, yet it is delivered in a conversational manner, with simple language that speaks to a broad audience. Throughout the poem, Smith acknowledges the darker aspects of existence, portraying a world that is “at least fifty percent terrible.” Despite the prevalence of injustice and suffering, the speaker maintains a hopeful perspective, urging her children—and by extension, the reader—to recognize the potential for beauty and to actively engage in bettering their surroundings. This mixture of sober reality with a resilient call to action gives the poem a tone that resonates with both the hardness of truth and the optimism of potential change.
Introduction of Central Themes
Lines 1-2: “Life is short, though I keep this from my children. Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine”
The poem opens with the repetition of “Life is short,” immediately establishing the theme of life’s fleeting nature. This repetition emphasizes the central message and sets the tone for the reflective and protective voice that follows. The poet confesses to living a life full of risks, which she chooses to shield from her children.
Juxtaposition of Life’s Pleasures and Hidden Truths
Lines 3-5: “in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways, a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways I’ll keep from my children.”
Here, Smith introduces a juxtaposition between life’s temptations and the wisdom gained from experience. The word “delicious” connotes pleasure, while “ill-advised” implies a sense of regret. The repetition of these phrases underscores the internal conflict of enjoying life’s vices while also wanting to protect one’s children from them.
Stark Realism and Maternal Protection
Lines 5-7: “The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.”
Smith presents a starkly realistic view of the world’s inherent negativity, suggesting it may even be an understatement. Again, the maternal instinct to protect her children from this harsh reality is evident.
Symbolism of Violence and Innocence
Lines 8-10: “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird. For every loved child, a child broken, bagged, sunk in a lake.”
These lines use vivid imagery to portray a world where beauty and innocence, symbolized by the bird and the loved child, are countered by acts of violence and malice. The symmetry in these lines reflects the balance of good and evil in the world, a balance the speaker seems to find troubling.
The Contrast Between Kindness and Cruelty
Lines 10-13: “Life is short and the world is at least half terrible, and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children.”
The repetition of “Life is short” and “the world is at least half terrible” reinforces the poem’s themes. The poet acknowledges the existence of kindness but warns of the equal presence of cruelty. This contrast illustrates the duality of human nature and experiences.
The Realtor Metaphor for Selling Life
Lines 14-16: “I am trying to sell them the world. Any decent realtor, walking you through a real shithole, chirps on about good bones.”
The metaphor of the realtor selling a house with “good bones” represents the poet’s attempt to present the world, despite its flaws, in a hopeful light to her children. This metaphor is extended to the idea of potential and the possibility of improvement.
An Invitation to Create Beauty
Lines 16-17: “This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”
The poem concludes with a hopeful suggestion that, while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, it is possible for one to create beauty within it. This direct address to the reader serves as an empowering call to action, emphasizing individual agency and potential. The rhetorical question leaves the reader with a sense of responsibility and optimism.
My Feeling After Reading Good Bones
Reading “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith leaves me with a haunting recognition of life’s fragility paired with a resilient hope. Smith’s straightforward language cuts to the core, making the poem’s complex themes deeply accessible. I’m struck by the blunt admission that life is “short,” and the world “at least fifty percent terrible,” which resonates as an uncomfortable truth. Yet, there’s a tenderness in the way the speaker wishes to shield her children from these harsh realities, a sentiment that I find both protective and poignant.
The imagery of violence—like stones thrown at birds—paints a vivid picture of the world’s cruelty. It’s unsettling, but Smith doesn’t leave me to dwell in darkness. Instead, she nudges me towards optimism, suggesting through her ending that beauty and goodness aren’t just present but are also within our power to cultivate. I finish the poem feeling contemplative but also galvanized, aware of life’s dualities and more determined to seek out and nurture the beauty in my corner of the world.
How do you feel about this poem? Let’s leave a comment below to share with other readers!