Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Published in 1980, Four Good Things raised questions about American life that had not been routinely considered in poetry. The poem reveals the emptiness of a life based on goods, services, and the acquisition of possessions. McMichael offers a vision in this poem of the historical conditions that produced himself, the modern person living in suburban Southern California.

Through the use of images of mapping, driving, and building homes, roads, and bridges, McMichael shows how the past determines the present. His argument in the poem is that industrialization, with its emphasis on acquisition and its definition of power as military or commercial might, forever changed the landscape of Britain and America. The poem depicts someone who has stopped taking a life of materialism for granted and has paused to ask himself if the things he has are really “good.”

Four Good Things is a personal narrative in which the poet-speaker speculates on the type of life he is living and what the quality of such an existence is. It is not primarily a philosophical interpretation that he develops, but a practical one that will allow him to get on with his life. At the end of the poem, he understands how the past is carried into the present and how everyone’s lives are, to a certain degree, determined by circumstances. He accepts these things as part of himself; he neither despises himself for who he is nor blames the world for being what it is.

While some evidence of an epic structure is evident, it is wrong to think of Four Good Things as an epic poem. The speaker does go on a quest for self-realization, descending metaphorically into the underworld of insomnia and meeting a man who, like the blind prophet Tiresias, seems to know more about the world than his physical circumstances would allow. However, Four Good Things lacks adventure, epic language and devices, and other perspectives within the poem to extend its range beyond the viewpoint of the speaker. That the speaker has thought of the epic similarities is suggested by his saying he has read Madame Bovary (1857), Gustav Flaubert’s great novel of a woman’s quest for knowledge of herself and Roughing It (1872), Mark Twain’s travel narrative that takes him to Nevada and California in the nineteenth century.