Good Bones by Maggie Smith explores the idea that the world is not necessarily a morally good place. She focuses on the idea that the world is ‘fifty percent terrible’, that being a ‘conservative estimate’. This is something she knows, but does not share with her children, not wanting to dampen their expectations of how life will be.
The title of the poem refers to a ‘realtor’ talking through a ‘real shithole’ and pointing out that although the house is terrible, it has a good structure and foundation, and therefore can be made into something beautiful. Smith suggests the same applies to our world. Although filled with terrible people, the earth itself is just like the house, it has Good Bones, ‘You could make this place beautiful’.
She does not want to tell her children about how horrible the world really is, so instead focuses on the promise of what they might do to it, instead of the reality of how it really is.
You can read the full poem here.
Good Bones is split by Maggie Smith into 17 lines, comprising one continuous stanza. You could call this form of poetry a monologue, with the lack of stanza division making the poem seem more of a speech than anything else. This rambling tone, with Smith referencing and coming back to past ideas, reflects the idea of a speech, with Smith talking around to her children without any plan of what exactly what to say.
One technique that Smith uses throughout the poem is repetition. On one hand, the use of this technique allows Smith to solidify ideas within the mind of the reader, the idea that ‘Life is short’ being the primary example of this. She builds ideas of the world’s negative aspects, and the fact that life is transient into the poem, allowing the reader to take on her advice almost as much as her children one day will.
The repetition could also be a reflection of Smith’s circular speech pattern. Indeed, she has not planned what she is going to say to her children, so this poem is a reflection of that impromptu message. This is furthered by another technique which Smith uses in Good Bones, caesura. There are very few long sweeping lines, instead most lines are disrupted by caesura. This disruption is a reflection of Smith’s mind actively working as she talks to her children, frequently changing ideas and moving directions. The structure of the poem exudes a sense of uncertainty, with Smith focusing directly on her lack of clarity.
Good Bones Analysis
The poem begins with a statement that reflects the transience of human life, ‘Life is short’, with Smith instantly focusing the poem on the negative side of life. She reaffirms this statement with ‘though I keep this from my children.’, the final end stop emphasising ‘children’ and brining them to the focus of the line. This first line begins a style which Smith continues throughout the poem, stating something negative about the world, and suggesting she will not tell her children about this. There is a sense of disappointment at the world, having so many negative things in it, and also a desire to protect her ‘children’ from these circumstances. They will learn with time, but Smith does not want to give them an insight into the horrors of the world they live in till later in life.
The caesura after ‘Life is short’, repeated again on the second line, emphasise the suddenness of death, with the metrical break in these lines being a gap in the meter which could symbolise the loss of life. Following this, the second line is enjambed, flowing quickly on to the third, representing how Smith has ‘shortened mine’, the speed of the meter here reflecting life passing her by.
The focus on ‘a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways’, repeated twice within these first four lines, displays the hedonistic joys of life, although some things may not necessarily be good for you in the long run, you indulge in the moment.
Yet, again she does not tell her children about her past, instead only focusing on the good.
The central idea of the poem arrives between line five and six, ‘The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate’, pointing to the inherent evil of man. She suggests that if things were as simple as 50% of the world being good, and 50% being bad, that still means that 1/2 the people you meet would be evil, a staggering number. Yet, things aren’t that simple, this being a ‘conservative estimate’, Smith suggesting that it is probable that a might higher percentage of people are actually ‘terrible’. Again, with a desire to protect her children from the evils of the world, this is something she keeps ‘from my children’.
Throughout Lines 8-12 within Good Bones, Smith presents scenarios in which one side is bad and the other good. She argues that ‘For every’ good thing, there is an equally bad thing happening at the same time. The first example she uses is ‘For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird’, focusing on violence against nature. The same goes for humans, ‘For every loved child’, Smith suggests that there is ‘a child broken, bagged,/ sunk in a lake’. The movement from one line to the next following this quote could be understood as a spatial representation of the body sinking. She focuses on the death of children here, again something she obviously wants to hide from her own children. The metrical division across the line ‘child, a child broken, bagged,’ with caesura cutting through the sentence, reflects the pain that Smith experiences when talking about this subject, only being able to slowly and painstakingly move across the idea.
Here Smith focuses on the metaphor of a ‘realtor’ selling a house. They walk through a ‘real shithole’, here representative of the world, and talk about ‘good bones’, focusing on how nice the structure of the house is. This is a tactic to say something positive when there really isn’t anything to say. The world is terrible and broken, but hopefully this can be mixed – maybe her children can help fix it.
Smith withdraws into herself for the final two lines. She uses a rhetorical question, the blind hope associated with ‘This place could be beautiful, right?’ compounding a sense of sorrow. It seems like Smith needs someone to reaffirm her, someone to let her know the world isn’t quite as terrible as it seems. The poem finishes with the direct address, ‘you’, focusing on how if it is possible to make this world a better place, it starts with the individual – ‘You could make this place beautiful’, you could make a change.