The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 573 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1213 words.)