Telling It All

professor Jeff Gundy writes about “Telling It All (Or at Least Some of It)”

Recently, Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” has gotten a lot of attention. (You can read it here.) The title image comes from the world of real estate: agents trying to sell a house that has lots of obvious problems will point out the underlying excellence of, say, the floor joists, studs, plumbing, and wiring. Good bones. Sometimes it’s true, but often it means that whoever buys the place will have a lot of sweaty, dirty work to do and a lot of money to spend before it’s fit to live in.

But this metaphor doesn’t come into the poem until the end. “Life is short,” it begins, “though I keep this from my children.” The first three fourths of the poem is not about houses but the world, which Smith describes as “at least half terrible,” and the need to “keep this from my children.” “Good bones” comes up in a kind of nearly desperate, last-gasp effort to convince herself (and us) that this world can still, indeed, be made better: “This place could be beautiful, / right?”

This could all be terribly preachy and predictable—haven’t we all written that poem where we discover that the world is a bad place and ought to be made better, through some murky process that involves, mostly, other people listening to us? But somehow it’s not that poem, mainly because Smith doesn’t just complain, and doesn’t make herself out to be some kind of grand, superior moral figure (another thing most of us have done, yes?).

From the beginning, Smith’s poem lets us in on her own confusions and internal conflicts. Is it right to deceive your children about how much suffering there is in the world? Is it right to conceal from them the “delicious, ill-advised” things you’ve done? How do we deal with all the pain and trouble we know about, within and without ourselves, and not despair?

These are very old questions that have a way of seeming desperately relevant to whatever the current situation may be. But rather than sliding into politics (as I’m entirely willing to do, some days), let’s think about writing poems. Those I like most often recognize, in specific and particular terms, that the world is full of trouble. They also position the poet not as a superior being nor as the helpless victim of all this, but as someone entangled in all of this, not completely innocent or outside the fray, but struggling to figure out, as the movie had it, how to do the right thing.

One more note: Even while she does this, Smith walks the thin line between confession and concealment—she never tells us exactly what those “delicious, ill-advised things” might have been. And isn’t the poem all the more tantalizing for its teasing us, not revealing too much?

So here’s a prompt: write your own poem combining complaint and resistance, confession and hope. Make it sad, bold, angry, despairing, funny—whatever feeling (or, better, combination of feelings) is true to you right now. Try to be personal without spilling all the beans, to reveal and explore your complicated reality without exposing every last secret.

This poem might take any form. But one way to do something like this that I’ve often found challenging and productive is to take another poem (like Smith’s) as a kind of template. To do this, just copy the poem out, add spaces between the lines, then write your own poem in between, with your own subject matter but following its syntax and structure as closely as you can.

 Here’s my try at doing this with the first few lines of “Good Bones”:

 Life is short, though I keep this from my children.

Talk is cheap, though I keep this from my friends. Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine

Talk is cheap, but I’ve wasted millions

in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,

on thousands of bitter, salty conversations,

a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways

thousands of savory wasted hours

I’ll keep from my children.

I still can’t bring myself to regret.

Now this is kind of mean, and not entirely true to my own feelings, but not entirely false either. It is how I felt, honestly enough, in the moment of writing . . . if I finished the poem, I might take some of it back, find some image like “good bones” to redeem this grumpiness and gloom . . . but I might not, too. Recklessness may not be advisable on mountainsides, but in writing poems it’s sometimes invaluable.

Your poem, of course, should take its own course. Its tone might be entirely different—funny, frustrated, infuriated . . . Do try to follow some of what Smith does with repetition, ambivalence, and self-disclosure, but if you’re drawn in another direction, don’t be afraid to follow your muse. The goal, always, is to write your poem, the one you need to write and the rest of us need to hear, right now.