Sunday, January 8, 2017

Maggie Smith's Poem & the Loss of Innocence

It's not so often that poetry and poets make national news or even create a buzz among the non-literary population across the forums of social media. But 2016 was the type of year that could stir many in middle America to read, respond to, and promote a poem that captured a moment and articulated the emotions and confusion that are too often impossible to describe. National tragedies and tragedies of the human spirit are becoming all too common, and events like the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando scream for someone to explain and clarify and offer an avenue for healing. And so it was that poet Maggie Smith "sat in a Starbucks and wrote a poem" that begins with the resigned melancholic observation "Life is short, though I keep this from my children." It became, in the words of Washington Post writer Nora Krug, "A Poem that Captured the Mood of 2016."

The poem is a heartfelt work that grapples with pain and injustice, with unfairness and disillusionment. “The world is at least/ fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative/ estimate,” it says. “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.”Its subject is whether, when and how to talk to children about these hard realities. “I was troubled by the question of how we teach our kids about the world without lying to them — telling them that it’s all good — and telling them the truth without scaring them.” In the poem, the speaker takes on the role of a real estate agent: “I am trying/ to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,/ walking you through a real s***hole, chirps on/ about good bones: This place could be beautiful,/ right? You could make this place beautiful.”
Poetry is a bit of a conundrum for many, but often it rings true and clarifies, and that's the case with the full poem "Good Bones," which grapples with the delicate question of how we protect our children from the harsh realities of the world without hiding it to their detriment. It's a parenting question I first addressed here, and which many a critic has struggled to clarify. Neil Postman warned us that the increasingly technological and interconnected world we seek and have casually cultivated will ultimately lead to The Disappearance of Childhood, a societal invention that should be more cherished.

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