Building community in a diverse, fragmented society is like the work of poetry. A poet makes connections among words. A poem joins unlike things, and in the joining creates new ways of seeing. One skill needed for building community is the ability to see how two unlike things, when joined together, could create something unique in the world. The task is to always remember, even in moments of confusion and despair, that, as Maggie Smith writes, “you could make this place beautiful.”
Reading poetry is a practice for building community. It requires patience. The gifts of a good poem reveal themselves slowly, over the course of several readings. Often, new insights are gleaned best with another person or community with whom to read and poem. And a multiplicity of meanings comes forward in poems, just as it does on any block in any neighborhood.
Slowing down, paying attention to details and empty spaces, expecting an abundance of meaning and gifts: all the things that make poetry important also make for good community building work. The meaning and gifts of our blocks, and the sorts of work we need to do together, become apparent when we slow down and listen to our neighbors. The abundance of gifts packed into every line of poetry and every block of a city or town offer themselves as gifts when we pause to listen and to receive.
Below are poems to enlighten, inspire, and encourage those who would do the hard work of digging into their places and seeking to build for the common good there.
“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith
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.
For Reflection: Maggie Smith offers this meditation on seeing the abundance of the world. Sure, things may look tough, she suggests, but can you imagine what could be? In a few moments of quiet reflection, imagine one of the “terrible” thins or places you know. What, through a lens of abundance, could it be? What is the gift already there, waiting to be discovered?
Read another poem by Wendell Berry
 Maggie Smith, “Good Bones” from Waxwing. Copyright © 2016 by Maggie Smith. Source: Waxwing magazine (Issue IX, Summer 2016) (2016)