We live in an age where we are confronted by so much information. There is so much coming at us all day long. Every few minutes there is another story, headline or tragedy popping up on our screens for us to digest. It seems impossible to put that particular genie back in the bottle at this stage so what do we do? How do we handle this information overload that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon? Many of us do still want to keep up with what’s going on in the world but the amount of tragedy we hear about has most definitely increased.
Many people view 2016 as the worst year so far in terms of bad news. There was of course the infamous 2016 election, Brexit, copious amounts of terrorist attacks and the loss of so many beloved icons. Again and again people seemed to turn to art as a way of coping with the awful events that were going on in the world. Every day in spite of the horror people continued making or posting art in its many forms as a way to survive all the tragedy.
One such piece of art was a poem by Maggie Smith (no sorry Downton Abbey fans, not that one) called Good Bones. The poems popularity was sparked by two tragic events that took place last year. One was the Orlando nightclub shooting that killed 49 people and wounded 53 more last June and the other was the death of British Labour MP Jo Cox in November. These two tragic events led to a surge in the poems popularity. In the following days it was shared online thousands of times. Dozens of famous people like Charlotte Church and Caitlin Moran also posted it to their social media accounts which only served to increase its reach. Finally after the results of the American election it began popping up again. It seemed to be capturing the mood of more than one nation.
As it stands the poem is estimated to have been viewed online an astonishing one million times. It has also been interpreted by a dance troupe in India, turned into a musical score and been translated into Spanish, Italian, French, Korean, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. Just incase like me, there are any late comers to this particular party it goes like this…
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.
By Maggie Smith
Personally I think the poem is achingly beautiful and describes the mood of the world so accurately. But I was also curious as to how the poet herself felt about the way in which her words gained their popularity.
Maggie Smith is a poet from Ohio who has written works like The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison and Lamp of the Body. She is also a mother of two and strangely enough that is how the poem came to be. A poem that has since been described as the official poem of 2016 was in fact written in a Starbucks in the summer of 2015. Smith was troubled about how she should talk to her children, who were four and eight about all the horrible things that were happening in the world while still providing them with hope. She explains that she wanted them to feel like the world is a good place but she also didn’t want to lie to them. Even if you’re not a parent I think you can relate to this feeling. We all want to give young people and ourselves, a reason to believe in the good even when we are in the face of so much darkness.
The fact that her words have now become synonymous with such terrible tragedies has left her feeling somewhat conflicted about the poem. It often resurfaces online after a tragic event has taken place. She admits that she would prefer if it was shared at a time of joy but she also hopes that her words can give hope to those who read them. She rejects the notion that it is a pessimistic poem and even though it describes the world as “half-terrible” so do I. Poetry, art and even comedy has always provided more comfort to people during difficult times than good.
Over the past few weeks we have once again seen the worst of humanity in Syria, London and Stockholm but perhaps if we allow ourselves to be inspired by art it will encourage us to create more and despair less. It might also force us to look harder in order to find the beauty in our own lives. I believe that art can help us to build resilience during these tumultuous times. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying to do my bit here, however small it may be. It might appear futile to some when they see people sharing poetry or a picture of a flower on their social media accounts but maybe it’s their own small way of fighting against all the hate. OK so the world does have a lot of problems but perhaps if we all do our part we could make this place beautiful!