It was published online by the literary journal Waxwing during a bad week in June: three days after a gunman killed 49 people in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub and a day before British politician Jo Cox was assassinated.
Something about a poem that begins “Life is short, though I keep this from my children” resonated with people. What parent hasn’t struggled to explain ugly events without scaring the innocence out of their kids?
Smith, who grew up in Westerville and has a master’s degree in fine arts from Ohio State University, said she didn’t set out to create what Public Radio International dubbed the official poem of 2016. (For one thing, she wrote it in 2015.)
“It was more a general-anxiety poem” that could have described any bad year, she said.
And she is clear-eyed about why, beyond its own merit, the poem found a large audience: The coincidental timing of publication during a tragic week, the fact that the short poem lends itself to social-media screen-grabs, and the election result that gave it new life.
(Web traffic spiked after Donald Trump’s election on Nov. 8, said Smith, who calls herself a “loudmouth Democrat.”)
When I interviewed her a few days ago, Smith had just received word that “Madam Secretary”, a CBS show that airs on Sunday nights, plans to have a character read an excerpt from “Good Bones” during an episode later this season. (She doesn’t know the date yet.)
The dramatic presentation won’t be a first for the poem: A group in India performed “Good Bones” with music and dance accompaniment this year. It has also inspired admiring tweets from actresses Alyssa Milano and Debra Messing.
Despite all the attention, Smith said the poem hasn’t changed her life. She still works as a freelance editor because poetry doesn’t pay the bills. And she’s still a busy mother who tries her best to explain the world’s joys and sorrows to a daughter, 8, and a son, 4.
Her daughter, she said, doesn’t seem to have internalized her mother’s anxiety about global events and doesn’t quite get all the fuss over a poem.
“She just rolls her eyes at me.”
Maggie Smith’s “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 s***hole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.