when repetition works

Jul 29, 2021 poetry appreciation

This poem arrived in my inbox the other day and made me smile in an ouch sort of a way. See what you make of ‘Good Bones‘ by Maggie Smith. If you click the little red arrow on the poem page, she’ll even read it to you.

I was struck by how well Smith uses repetition, and repetition with variation—things which can work really well but can be also be overdone and tiresome. Here I think it does something to mimic the closed loop of thoughts, the no-getting-away-from-it quality of what the speaker is thinking and fearing. It’s also very touching, somehow—how quietly-spoken but insistent the truth that ‘life is short’; the repetitions of ‘though I keep this from my children’ underlining love’s powerlessness to prevent the suffering of the beloved. The idea that life has ‘good bones’ only (as opposed to being well fleshed out too): is it cynicism, pessimism, realism… well I guess we might answer that question differently at different times. But I do wonder why, if it’s a ‘shithole’, does it matter that ‘life is short’? Or, for Smith, is the shortness a major part of the shittyness?

I’m also really interested in the imagery about life as the real estate she has given her children, and the poet’s sense that she must ‘sell them the world’. What’s that about? Can the world not sell itself—or have we neglected our rented “property” so much that it has gone to wrack and [w]ruin? (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) In other words, is it the humans who are the problem? Certainly there’s a hoping-against-hope pathos in those last two lines (more repetition, plus the appeal to the reader, ‘could be beautiful,/ Right?’), suggesting that someone with vision and enough to invest ‘could make this place beautiful’. Possibly. Okay. That’s responsibility handed back to us, then.

There’s a lot packed into this poem, and it wears its existential questions so lightly. It stays with me. I wonder if it will stay with you?

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