The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573

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Four Good Things is a book-length narrative poem by California poet James McMichael. The poem is autobiographical, and McMichael makes no distinctions between himself and the speaker of the poem. The speaker describes, comments upon, and observes his world without being judgmental. By the poem’s end, he has reconciled himself to the role of the past in the present.

The poem begins in the late 1940’s and covers a period into the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. While the speaker states his age in the poem once, he eschews traditional chronology for a more loosely constructed sense of time. Each of Four Good Things’s sixteen stanzas describes an episode in the speaker’s life from childhood through early adulthood. The first ten stanzas depict his boyhood and college years. He writes about his care provider, Florence, his father’s career as a real estate agent in Pasadena, California, his mother’s cancer, and ultimately, his father’s death. He also describes his father’s second marriage to Lucille and his adolescence living with her and her family.

The eleventh stanza begins the second section of the poem, which describes how private lives in the nineteenth century were affected by industrialization. This section is set in rural England in the 1850’s and later. Stanza 12 is the turning point in the poem’s narrative. Here McMichael connects the American capitalism he knew as a boy with the industrial period in England. His intent in this stanza is to draw together his personal past with the historical events he thinks shaped it.

Stanza 13 presents McMichael and his companion, Linda, on their way to Manchester, England, the heart of the British industrial movement. Once there, he hopes to establish how the world became so commercial and so interested in defining self-worth by possessions. Restless and plagued by his inability to sleep, the speaker meditates on the issues of desire, need, forgiveness, and time. He is apparently distressed that his life is directionless and disturbed over the confusion he feels in wanting to explain everything about the relationship of the past to the present at once.

The third section of the poem, stanza 15, has McMichael encountering a mentally disturbed young man named Antony. Antony is institutionalized and cared for by his mother, who visits him and takes him out for drives. The speaker contemplates how he and Antony live lives that are quite different although they are parallel in time. Once he and Linda part from Antony, they drive into Manchester, where McMichael encounters the people of that city. He observes their possessions and their living habits and is again intrigued and disturbed by the people living lives parallel to his. He comments on how materialism has replaced thinking and interaction among families: “They steady us, these things we’ve made.”

Back at home in California in the last stanza of the poem, McMichael considers how he has and has not changed because of his experiences. He recalls how easily he has fit back into his American life, and he tries to draw parallels between the lives of the English and his own life. The poem ends with Linda telling him a story about a ski trip she took in Europe, where she saw farmers working in the winter. The point of the story would seem to be that “life goes on” and people do what they must to survive. Those tactics are different for everyone.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213

Four Good Things is a free-verse poem of sixty-nine pages. While its meter alludes at times to blank verse, blank verse is employed inconsistently. Sections are not numbered, but the sixteen stanzas are separated by white space. Reviewers in the early 1980’s found McMichael’s use of language appropriately “inelegant” for a poem about commerce and materialism. There are “unpoetical” phrasings, some vulgarity, and some obscenities. The poem’s phrasing is similar to prose, leading critic Robert van Hallberg to praise McMichael for “reclaim[ing] for poetry some of the prerogatives ceded to prose, fictional and expository” writing.

The predominant imagery in the poetry involves mapping. Secondary images are created by references to home building and driving. The poem is set in neighborhoods in Pasadena and Manchester, which are deliberately depicted as being not too different. Mapping is the metaphor that unifies the poem, and Four Good Things is itself a map of its speaker’s experiences. Mental maps created by memory, futuristic mappings of the past in the present, street maps of Pasadena, and road maps around Manchester are all described in the poem.

The first five lines of the opening stanza depict how Florence walked to the bus stop to get a ride to the grocery store and how she walked by the houses, not the addresses, of the neighbors. McMichael’s father is also connected to maps. He designed a subdivision, the Pasadena Tracts, which failed to attract buyers; he “would be somewhere within his maps at any time,” says the speaker. The use of “within” indicates that his father used his maps to dream or to plan his future. In the fifth stanza, a teacher walking along an English river with her students instructs them to map the plants growing there. In the sixth stanza, the speaker takes a mental walk through old neighborhoods that are now abandoned.

The seventh stanza switches tone to describe Pasadena in the way that a group of real estate agents viewing a new development site would view it. The changes in the rugged landscape, forged over time, are quickly altered when schools, hotels, and shops replace trees, open spaces, and water sources diverted for subdivisions. With the eye of a documentary filmmaker, the speaker comments, “The balance of trade was not in Pasadena’s favor.” To see how this has transpired, he looks into the city’s suburban past and finds that “[t]he wealth of the invisible elite went into their homes.” He particularly addresses the role of the Greene brothers, whose bungalows made Pasadena famous. Charles Sumner Greene and Henry Mather Greene were the premiere architects of the California Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their integration of homes into the local landscape and use of local building materials are mentioned by the speaker with appreciation. He particularly likes their houses because their mapping was evident: “Everything showed you how it went together.” Many such houses were razed for the very kind of anonymous development his father was promoting.

The sereneness of urban Pasadena is troublesome to the speaker. He sees the people comfortable in their houses, trading up to buy something more prestigious, and he wonders: “What did people do all day?” As a boy, he collected stamps that, when glued into his albums, provided a map of the world for his youthful imagination. As he surveys the people around him, he finds that their preoccupations are like his but different. He maps his worry about his mother’s death from cancer in the hopes of coming to terms with his instinctual impulse to worry about why he does not understand the world better. The topical, regional allusions combined with information about his father’s death and stepmother’s dispersal of the estate, are somewhat like pushpins stuck into an urban planner’s map of suburbia.

When the tenth stanza moves the poem to England in the 1850’s, mapping is used to discuss how the enclosure acts changed the landscape of agricultural Britain. Enclosure, which was initiated during the reign of King Henry VII in 1489, allowed landlords to fence and redistribute farmland. It also allowed the landlords to force their tenants to farm the land according to its owners’ needs. In the eighteenth century, enclosures reduced the amount of available land for tenants to farm, and when new property boundaries were drawn many people lost their homes. Abandoned farms and towns and increased poverty were caused by rapacious enclosure. A second major wave of enclosing occurred in the nineteenth century, and the consequences were as devastating to the poor as they had been a hundred years earlier. The poet is particularly interested in how the displaced poor became the factory workers in industrial cities such as Manchester. Enclosure remapped Britain and paved the way for the need for factories in the later years of the British Empire. McMichael’s descriptions of enclosures are historically accurate, and his depiction of the factories’ squalor is consonant with the socialist studies done by Friedrich Engels for his book The Conditions of the Working Class in England (1859).

From the old maps, the poet takes the reader back to California, to the Pasadena area suburbs where the landscapers’ trees provide the boundaries between one house and another. Roads built by developer Henry Huntington are linked to the highways that remapped Southern California and brought in new people to buy new homes. Relentless urban sprawl eliminated the Greene and Greene houses in large numbers, and the populations of the neighborhoods the speaker knew as a child changed terrifically.

The trip to Manchester calls for both real road maps and symbolic maps. The jet-lag-induced insomnia of stanza 13 causes McMichael to move about in his memory to try to understand why he is the way he is. He speaks of his desire to know himself better in terms of driving to get somewhere. His difficulty in such an endeavor is that he has no map and no one to direct him on his journey but his own flawed self.

Stanza 16 begins with McMichael describing himself as a tenant with a lawn he has the ability to let go to waste (a term used in enclosure documents to describe uncultivated land). He parallels himself at this point in his life with the tenants who worked for their lives in England in the past. He drives through neighborhoods he has known to construct a map connecting his past to the present. Then he remembers how he and Linda had driven around England with a map as tourists; they had the freedom to see only what they wanted to see. When he drives in Pasadena, he is mainly confronted with things he does not want to see. Shifting between past and present, between what he wants and what is inevitable, he maps out a sense of closure. He decides that he is putting too much pressure on himself to try to account for his own history in the history of the world. In the end, he seems to be on the verge of balancing the functions of history, personal responsibility, chance, and change within his life. He has mapped his world; he knows where he is and seems willing to begin to map a future.