Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” went viral around the world in the days and weeks after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub. I am not certain why; neither is she. And yet, it seemed to me like all that could be said in the face of so much hatred and heartache.
“Good Bones” 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
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.
Does poetry matter in the face of violence or suffering? Can words arranged on a page or spoken alter the facts of war or terror, racism, poverty?
W. H. Auden, famously, said, “poetry makes nothing happen.” And yet he wrote those words in a poem, one that honors fellow poet W. B. Yeats. He goes on to say of poetry: “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”
Few would say that the value of poetry inheres in making something happen in the world. As Auden said elsewhere, “If the criterion of art were its power to incite action, Goebbels would be one of the greatest artists of all time.” And yet, poetry surely does something. It can make us see and feel in ways we otherwise wouldn’t; it makes vivid what we might otherwise ignore.
This week I want to offer three poems that I believe speak to the power of poetry to startle and reveal. Perhaps they also speak to our renewed need for poetry in a world of too much despair. Each of the three went “viral,” in response, respectively, to the refugee crisis, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Pulse nightclub shooting. Volleyed around the globe, they survive; they are a way of happening. They are a mouth that has opened.
Thank you to Fr. Staudenmaier for inviting me to share them.
Mary-Catherine Harrison, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of English, University of Detroit Mercy
Co-Director, University Honors Program
Executive Director, Rx for Reading Detroit