‘The Good Life’ is one of many the poet laureate wrote that deals with everyday events and concerns. She uses clear diction in these lines, with simple syntax and easy-to-understand images. This allows as large a group as possible to connect to the sentiment she was trying to convey. She’s not speaking to the overeducated and wealthy but to those who have been in the same, or a similar, situation to that which her speaker was in.
Explore The Good Life
In the first lines, Smith makes an interesting comparison between money and a “mysterious lover.” These images make her speaker feel nostalgic for a time in which money was something she had right after payday. For the rest of the week or month, she lived on coffee and bread. Despite this hardship, she can’t help but romanticize this time in her life and remember it fondly.
You can read the full poem here.
The Title: “The Good Life“
“The Good Life” is a well-used phrase that is usually used to refer to the world of the wealthy. It is one of luxury where the need is a thing of the past. In Smith’s poem, readers can consider this definition of “the good life” or dig deeper and consider the life that Smith’s speaker feels nostalgia for. It was one where money only featured rarely, making its presence all the more meaningful.
In ‘The Good Life,’ Smith engages with the themes of money/wealth and happiness. She evokes feelings of nostalgia as her speaker looks back on their life and recalls how they once dealt with money. The speaker takes pleasure from how money’s rare presence in her life brought her joy that one may assume no longer exists. This kind of happiness came about from hard work and simple indulgence.
Structure and Form
‘The Good Life’ by Tracy K. Smith is a ten-line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. The lines do not follow a consistent rhyme scheme, nor do they conform to a metrical pattern, meaning they are written in free verse. This style of writing is common to Smith’s poetry. Despite this, the lines are themselves visually similar. They appear to mostly be the same length, containing around the same number of words.
One of the more interesting features of this poem’s structure is the way that Smith chose to deal with line breaks, using end-stopped lines and enjambment. The latter occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the very effective transition between lines three and four. Readers have to move down to the next line in order to finish the thought. The empty space after “never” is evocative of money’s absence. The only period in the poem is at the end, concluding it with a solid finality that leaves readers thinking about the times they lived the “good life.”
Smith makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Good Life.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example: “makes me” in line four and “walking” and “work” in line six.
Caesura: can be seen when the poet uses a pause in the middle of a line, either through the use of punctuation or a natural pause in the meter. The former can be seen in line six, which reads: “Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday.”
- Personification: an example can be seen in the second and third lines when the poet describes money as a “mysterious lover” who went out and never came back.
When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
In the first lines of ‘The Good Life,’ the speaker, who is usually considered to be Tracy K. Smith, begins by throwing the reader into an image of how money is perceived and discussed. She uses personification to depict its fleeting and surprising nature. At one moment, everything seems stable, and in the next, it walks out the door to buy milk and is never seen again. By comparing it to a “mysterious lover,” the poet is drawing comparisons between money and happiness, pleasure, and excitement. It’s these things, but it is also baffling and hard to understand. She’s also suggesting that one cannot depend on money, just like they can’t depend on a mysterious lover. They can leave anytime without explanation.
In the next lines, the speaker shifts to her personal perspective on money. Whenever she hears anyone talk about money, she starts to feel nostalgic. She doesn’t exactly miss the times she had money, but the times where she had to live on “coffee and bread.” Money at this time in her life was a luxury, something that she didn’t have all the time, nor could she depend on. The following lines make her perspective clearer.
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
On roast chicken and red wine.
The speaker looks back with feelings of nostalgia (misplaced or genuine) for the times she walked to work on payday to pick up what she’d earned. She felt then, or does now, when she looks back on those times, like a “woman journeying for water / From a village without a well.” She felt like she was working, suffering, and putting in the time to have a few days of luxury. It was this hard work and the contrast between “coffee and bread” and “roast chicken and wine” that remains a vibrant memory in her mind.
The days she lived the “good life” were fleeting and filled with pleasure that made the other hardships seem worth it. It’s easy to read deeper into these lines and consider how life then was likely simpler than it is now. She dealt with money when she had it, and due to its mysterious nature, she’s able to romanticize the experience.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Good Life’ should also consider reading some of Tracy K. Smith’s other poems. For example:
- ‘I Don’t Miss It’ – explores loneliness after the end of a, particularly impactful relationship.
- ‘Semi-Splendid’ – features an argument between the speaker and their partner and focuses on the difference between standing up for oneself and not.
Some other related poems include:
- ‘kitchenette building’ by Gwendolyn Brooks – based around Brooks’ experiences in Chicago in small, poor housing complexes.
- ‘good times’ by Lucille Clifton – explores the simple things that make for “good times.”