National Poetry Month 2020, Week One: Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones”

April 4, 2020

A few years ago, a remarkable thing happened to poet Maggie Smith.

Portrait of Maggie Smith by Devon Albeit Photography
Maggie Smith (Devon Albeit Photography)

As she tells it in a note for the website Women’s Voices for Change, “I tend to labor over poems for weeks, months, even years, revising many, many times, working in different documents and comparing versions.”

This new poem, however, she wrote “in about half an hour in a Starbucks, scrawling it in green ink on a legal pad. I deleted only one word between the first draft and the second (final) draft.”

You’ve likely read this poem—the poem, “Good Bones,” went viral shortly after it was published in Waxwing in June 2016. It appeared the same week of the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and the murder of MP Jo Cox in the UK, when people were struggling to make sense of what was happening in the world.

When a reader posted a screenshot of the poem on Twitter, it was soon picked up by others, retweeted and reposted, and then celebrities got hold of it and started circulating it to their large groups of followers. In short, the poem went viral.

I’m sharing “Good Bones” here in part because it has something we could all use these days: a desire to “believe in the ultimate goodness of the world for the sake of one’s children,” as a reviewer wrote in the Washington Post.

Now, I know this poem is kind of a signature poem of Ms. Smith’s, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” (“It’s my ‘Freebird,’” she said in an interview, referring to the ubiquitous Lynyrd Skynyrd song request.)

And she’s probably tired of it being the one Maggie Smith poem so many people know (and she has many others that are fine poems in their own right, so you should check them out: Maggie Smith).

Like “One Art,” however, there’s a reason this poem is so popular: it’s a solid poem that speaks directly to people.

“I wrote the poem in 2015,” Smith says, “and clearly I’d been thinking about what it means to raise children in fraught times: What do we tell them? What do tell ourselves? I continue to grapple with these questions, as a mother and as a poet.”

Maggie Smith is the author of a book of short inspirational prose pieces, Keep Moving (Simon & Schuster, 2020), which originated from her Twitter account @maggiesmithpoet, the eponymous Good Bones (Tupelo Press, 2017), as well as The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison (Tupelo Press, 2015) and Lamp of the Body (Red Hen Press, 2005).

Here is Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones”:

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.


“Good Bones” is from Good Bones, published by Tupelo Press, copyright © 2017 by Maggie Smith. Used with permission of the author. First published in Waxwing Magazine.

For more on National Poetry Month, go to: poets.org/national-poetry-month

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