What can a poem do?


I keep trying to write about my impending book publication, about the process of writing, about poetry. But all I can think about are the students and teachers of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. I spent twelve years in a high school classroom – one as a full-time substitute teacher, eleven as an English teacher.

I’ve taught every kind of student: eager, disinterested, poor, rich, parents overly involved, parents totally absent, some good at school, others disheartened by it. I’ve taught students as articulate as those who are speaking out now about gun reform. I’ve taught students who I know were capable of killing seventeen of their peers.

Every time I sit down to write about writing, I come up dry, because it doesn’t seem important in the face of dead children. Then I remember Alex Schachter reading his son Max’s poem. A poem that Max wrote two weeks before he was gunned down in his high school. I think of how people turn to poetry in times of love, in times of sorrow. I know that many of my students, high school, undergraduate, and graduate make sense of their world through words. And I remember how people passed around Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones” after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. How that poem helped people move forward.

And yet another shooting. And yet, even with the brilliance of the young people who are mobilizing and asking good questions and speaking up for their murdered peers and teachers… it feels a little hopeless.  Still, this place is beautiful, right? How can we move forward and create more peace, more love, more listening, more hope?

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.
~ Maggie Smith
Do yourself a favor. Buy Maggie’s new book Good Bones. It’s filled with stunning, beautiful, wrenching, full-hearted poems that you need in your life.

2 Replies to “What can a poem do?”

  1. Erin, this is one of my go-to books (Good Bones) and I seem to be going-to-it a lot more these days. Like you, I also feel that writing about – or talking – about writing falls a bit short right now. But thank goodness we have poems like these to console us, to get us through another “shithole” place and those chirping around us about arming teachers in the classroom. Sometimes, loving the world is the most difficult love of all, isn’t it?

    Thank you for this post.


  2. Hi Erin,
    I’m an educator (27 years now, 19 of them in classrooms) and former poet and sometimes-still writer. I suppose one reason I’ve had more staying power in the classroom than on the page is the question of purpose. Real-live kids in front of me are more compelling than abstract readers who may or may not read my words (much less get something vital from them). But still, I know that poetry and teaching (or any other more direct sort of service) aren’t really all that different: Both require a kind of faith. I appreciate the reminder and the chance to read again one of my favorite poems. Thank you.

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