Collected Poems, by Paul Goodman. Edited by Taylor Stoehr. Vintage, 465 pp. $4.95.
In my freshman year at Duke, the university held a symposium on The Meaning of the University. I knew nothing of educational theory, nor of the turmoil surrounding colleges that was soon to erupt (the year was 1966), but I was anxious to participate in the life of the mind that the university offered, and the symposium was touted as a major event. In a crowded, bustling Page Auditorium, the dignitaries moved to the stage: a couple of professors from other universities, a writer on educational theory, the Stanford student body president (David Harris), a moderator, and the president of Duke, Douglas Knight, who was to give the opening address. With the hordes of people, the name cards, microphones, podium, stage lights, popping flashbulbs, it seemed a most impressive event. Douglas Knight had been a Yale professor (when, two years later, I took his course in the European Epic Tradition, I found him a brilliant teacher), but he was a rambling talker, speaking on a subject I was unfamiliar with, and I let my mind wander, content vaguely to soak up the atmosphere. I joined in the warm applause that followed his talk.
But before he was seated a voice cut sharply through all the decorum that surrounded the moment, “Wait a minute, Knight.” It was obviously not a planned part of the program, as if an embarrassing drunk had wandered into the hall, or a radical student had set out to disrupt things (such students were still pretty much in the closet at Duke in 1966, but they were about to erupt, with a bang). The voice belonged to one of the participants, a sour-looking man, shaggy, shabby, his face wrinkled into a frown. He proceeded systematically to attack the whole talk, while Dr. Knight stood, then sat, awkwardly nodding, smiling in embarrassment, while the symposium moderator waited to go on with the program, while the crowd sat in hushed silence. It was a stunning moment. Needless to say, it awoke me from my reverie. The man who had interrupted was Paul Goodman.
So much in that moment was typical of him. That he interrupted a decorous ceremony; that he could not even wait for the program to proceed before speaking his piece (thus making sure his fellows on the panel wouldn’t beat him to the punch); that he attacked Knight’s speech systematically; that he wore an expression of ill-disguised hostility in confronting a man like Knight, who represented so much that Goodman found distasteful; that he wore a nondescript sportjacket and tieless shirt, while his peers were more conventionally dressed (David Harris, of course, wore even less conventional attire): all these things seem characteristic of a career that was then in full flower. (The whole of that symposium was somewhat typical. His early interruptions, quibblings, were applauded by many, especially students. His quiet talk on the second night, when he held the microphone in one hand, gestured with the other, as if we were all just sitting across the table from him, was well received. But he was not one to ride a wave of popularity. He told everyone off. I remember the deadly deadly silence when, even on the first night, he told students that if they were serious in their anti-war protest they would have to give up their 2-S deferments. There was no applause for that remark. By the end of the conference his haggling had become tiresome. His interruptions were booed and shouted down. But he continued to make them.)
As usual, he was dominating things, illustrated a point by comparing someone . . . to the kind of neurotic young man who keeps track on a calendar of the days he has successfully resisted masturbating.
But it was a new scene for me. I had not heard a university president addressed that way, had not imagined that it could be done, and I sat aghast. I attended every regular session of the symposium, and several subsidiary events. (At an afternoon discussion on the quad I witnessed another typical Goodman moment. While the other participants sat in folding chairs, Goodman sat cross-legged in front of his, on the platform, huddled in his ratty sportjacket, beside him his pipe and a coffee cup he had ripped off from the union. As usual, he was dominating things, illustrated a point by comparing someone, something — I can’t imagine what — to the kind of neurotic young man who keeps track on a calendar of the days he has successfully resisted masturbating. In the middle of the session he realized he was out of tobacco, simply stood up while someone else was talking and walked off toward the Dope Shop, but on his way he noticed a young man smoking a pipe and stopped to borrow from his pouch. From the back of the crowd I was ignoring the speaker, watching Goodman. He filled his pipe, spoke with the young man, smiled, laughed. It was the only time I saw him smile those whole three days.) I attended not really to hear what was being said, but simply to be in the presence of that man who had so much startled me.
From that time on I had a vague fascination with Paul Goodman. I wish I could say I ran off immediately and read his complete works, but I didn’t. I did look into his books, the copy of Growing Up Absurd that I already had, the fat novel, The Empire City, that I stumbled across in the stacks of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, the journal Five Years that had just come out. There was much more, of course, that I could have looked into. I did not find Goodman’s style difficult, exactly — most of his individual sentences were easy enough to understand — but there was something so strange about what he said that I could not penetrate it. As Goodman himself said, writing of the universe, “Every classic, Jim, is odd, / stupedous, not altogether sane, / but through and through all of a piece.” I found his opus inaccessible. Nevertheless, I continued to be drawn to it, just as I had been drawn night after night to those sessions of the symposium. Something about the man fascinated me.
It was not until years later that I found in Goodman’s Little Prayers and Finite Experience the cycle of short poems — four beat lines in two four-line stanzas — that spoke simply and directly to me. It seemed strange to discover, buried amid the massive output of this political radical, sexual renegade, these simple poems that spoke so movingly to God. Many could have been taken for the verse of a conventionally religious man, even a conventional Christian. Struggling with religious questions myself (as I still am), I poured, practically meditated, over those poems, found them striking, moving, comforting. Through many of them I saw the man; indeed, the Little Prayers are among Goodman’s most personal writings. I wrote poetry in imitation of them. Through the sheer repetition of my reading I memorized many, and just a year ago, as I sat one day in the woods beside my house, full of anxiety and dread at the thought of leaving a job and a town that I had inhabited for six years, that had provided me with much in the way of security, identity, I summoned up one of the most beautiful of the prayers, that which Horatio chants at the end of The Empire City, and found in that moment the courage to move into novelty, the unknown
Father, guide and lead me stray for I stumble forward straight my way undeviating, I do not notice the pleasant bypaths that make us this world surprising nor the precipice that sinks before. O give me ground for next a step to stagger walking in my sleep.
It was disconcerting, some time after my discovery of the prayers, to find that Goodman’s religious beliefs — I should have known — were as idiosyncratic as the rest of his thought. In his Defence of Poetry, he says offhandedly, “I use the word ‘God’ freely when I write, much less freely when I speak, never when I think or talk to myself. I don’t know clearly what I intend by it.” Elsewhere he admits that his speaking of God is a poetic convention, convenient because it lends a form to his thoughts. It is hard, reading the Little Prayers — a major section in the Collected Poems — to believe that this is all God meant to him. Still, I am generally repelled by conventional piety. There is always something suspect in the voice of certainty. I want to hear what the doubter has to say about God.
No, neither with my eyes closed and You a presence warm that near I know, not in the busy world and wide where I am Your friend open-eyed, but vaguely peering out to see a small room and I am drowsy and You seem to be everywhere in the room, if You are.
If nothing else, the Little Prayers have served as a doorway into the work of a man who has become one of the really important writers for me.
Paul Goodman’s career as a writer was hardly typical. In his younger years, he was surrounded and admired as a brilliant young man by a wide group of personal friends and set up early as a writer, churning out plays, poetry, prose, in an apartment kept by his sister. His father had long since deserted the family, and his mother was generally absent. (A fictionalized account of this period can be found in Delmore Schwartz’s story, “The World Is a Wedding,” in which the protagonist is portrayed as an aspiring playwright.) Though to some extent he was published early — he was included in the New Directions volume Five Young American Poets of 1941, his thirtieth year, and began at that point to appear regularly in New Directions and Partisan Review — his publication lagged far behind his output. He appeared in small quarterlies; some of his writing, in Communitas and Gestalt Therapy, was greatly admired, but only by a rather select group. Though he had apparently been a bright, vital, optimistic young man, his failure to be noticed gradually embittered him. In his middle years he was a kind of has-been without ever having really arrived. The enormous fame that followed Growing Up Absurd seems to have come too late to bring him much personal happiness. By the time I saw him at Duke, he was hardly the bright young man that his early friends remember.
His fiction and poetry were always the writing most important to him, and least received by the public. Only after Growing Up Absurd was he able to publish his massive epic, The Empire City, though parts of it had been published as separate novels by small presses. His collected stories, Adam and His Works, were published in 1969, and included a large body of work, though something short of the hundreds of stories he had written in his youth. The Lordly Hudson and Other Poems, which also appeared after Growing Up Absurd, was the first book of his poems accepted by a major publisher. Hawkseed and Homespun of Oatmeal Gray followed. He was assembling his Collected Poems when he died of a heart attack in 1972. Taylor Stoehr, who is writing his biography, completed the editing and published the book the following year.
Even to Goodman’s fervent admirers, the neglect he experienced is understandable. As wonderful as it often is, Goodman’s fiction is difficult, avant-garde, and could hardly be expected to reach a large audience. His poetry is a different matter. Perhaps the simplest of all his writing, it is still much removed from the mainstreams of twentieth-century poetry. He borrowed forms from a wide variety of poetic traditions, but filled those forms with words that are prosy, conversational, idiosyncratic. His poems are seldom imagistic. His subjects were often prohibitive in his day: political radicalism, open bisexuality. Various of his admirers have admitted that his individual poems are not as impressive as the work as a whole. Goodman himself admitted, when he published The Lordly Hudson, that what was most impressive in it was not the individual poems, but the fact that a man could still live his life that way.
For the Collected Poems form a spiritual autobiography. Even for a man who was frank and open in all his work, they are certainly his most personal writings. The bulk of them seem to have come from his middle and later years, if one can judge from the textual evidence, but they trace the trials and concerns of his entire life.
Goodman the creator is apparent throughout. Writing was his vocation, the gift he had been given, and he would not abandon it, even when the world was having none of what he produced: he would not let society define the work he would do (so much of the important social theory of Growing Up Absurd stems from this one simple fact). Writing was his way of defining needs; as he so often said, he was the kind of person who says what he wants and then wants it. He believed that creation was not the product of the individual, but of the Creator Spirit working through the individual, the same Spirit that in Genesis creates the world in six days and that has been creating in that world ever since. Writing was his way of chatting with his Creator, even when no one else would listen; it was, as he said in Kafka’s Prayer, a form of prayer.
Creator Spirit, who dost lightly hover whence I know not, and why to me I never questioned, come. Do visit thy lover after Thy long absence. I turn over awakening in the morning: Thou art not there to my touch nor is a substitute there, but nothing nothing at all to talk to and make love when I awake.
Among his most beautiful poems are his hymns to this Creator, prayers for solace, aid, prayers of thanks.
Writing was his way of defining needs; as he so often said, he was the kind of person who says what he wants and then wants it.
Goodman’s love poems are titled, significantly, “Making Love,” and the term has several senses. He was always a man who set out to find love, create it, and was constantly frustrated when others could not return the love he offered. Way before his time, he was open about bisexuality. According to one who was there, Goodman was asked to leave Black Mountain College not because he was free about his sexuality, not because he approached even the teenage children of faculty members, but because he insisted on verbally defending his right to do so (you could do such things at Black Mountain if you just wouldn’t talk about them). He believed in sex as a way of getting to know people, coming to trust them. Though he was apparently successful enough as a cruiser, he was tormented by the fact that his brief encounters rarely led to anything more. Poem after poem pictures Goodman waiting for the date that never showed, looking for love where it couldn’t be found. Too many of the men whom he encountered could not really accept the sex that they compulsively and furtively sought out; Goodman believed in being open simply as a way of accepting what he was doing. Despite his frustration, the three sections titled Making Love are among the most beautiful in the volume, especially when they express his occasional moments of happiness.
Moments I had of glad delight with you, when first my eyes caught sight of you, when you regarded me and gave my hope a chance to be, another day you pressed my hand promising because underhand, we made love you were not afraid, we chatted quietly afterward, agreed to meet another time we both were there ahead of time nor shall I soon your face forget the light of recognition lit. Once a whole day of joy I knew riding the neighborhood with you and noticing to the east and west north and south. Not one to rest content am I; folly and guilt tear down my house before it’s built; but when I was a time or two happy, friend, it was with you.
Goodman was also a family man. He married twice, had three children; his second marriage, though never formalized with any ceremony, lasted through many years to his death. Nowhere in his writings is it particularly suggested how Sally Goodman managed to maintain a home with this brilliant but difficult man — she remains throughout a dim figure, source of strength — but his love for her and dependence on her were obviously enormous.
Sally has smiled on me such a smile that caution and resentment both my wardens are flung into the winds that mile on mile pour northward to us from Miami gardens where dead my mother lies and red the rose and the hibiscus bloom, but there is no memory to me more fair and dear in those distances than the presence of Sally-o.
He was also a devoted father, as any number of poems suggest, but his true family extended beyond these bounds. It included not only his sister Alice, who had largely raised him and had been terribly important to his early career, not only his brother Percival, the noted architect, who collaborated with Paul on the classic of City planning, Communitas, but also the vast host of builders, creators, who nurtured his spirit: “A Family of Architects.” Goodman seems always to have been surrounded by a diverse lot, the Puerto Rican youth whom he played handball with as well as thinkers, scholars. But his most valued companions were the fellow artists through history who remained more alive to him than many a living breathing human being.
From the perspective of his inner life, Goodman’s activist career — which in the world he is most known for — seems almost incidental. He developed his social theories for the same reason that he believed a good teacher teaches, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, because he saw clearly the way things worked and the ways they could work better. He would have hoped for a world where everyone might be politically involved, where small communities could make decisions for themselves, but in the absence of such a world it was left to men like him to speak out. It is ironic that in the last decade of his life his career as a spokesman took him away from the artistic pursuits that had always been his true vocation (though nothing ever stopped the vast flow of his poetry), but he was important in such a wide variety of social causes that one can hardly regret the fact. In his role as an activist, Goodman found the acceptance he had never found as a writer, and throughout the sixties he wore himself out accepting invitations because he could never forget his early neglect. Even so, he didn’t cater to any group, but spoke the truth as he saw it. Eventually he outlasted his welcome even with the young people he had done so much to liberate.
Throughout the Collected Poems there runs a great strain of sadness. The section of North Percy painfully laments the death of Goodman’s son Matthew Ready, who was killed at the age of twenty in a mountain climbing accident, but even elsewhere in the volume that event keeps glancing through. It seems the one fact among all the others in his life that Goodman could never really accept; the pain it brought him was terrible, maddening. His own failing health, for a man who had always been so active, was also a torment, and he wrote about it obsessively, dwelling on his approaching death. Writing for Goodman was a way of facing facts; when there was nothing else to do with them, he could at least say them.
Heart aching for the North Country ill as I am is my will to live until at least again the spring. The view is heavy wherever I look with those who were and will not be on the meadows along the river five lovers who have drifted to other country and my own flesh and blood that is dead. Today I buried as I promised Alice’s ashes next to her nephew in the village graveyard up the hill. She liked it here. My son had plans how he would farm it when it was his. Here is a red leaf on the lawn. I am obsessed by the plain facts: writing them literally down is all the poetry I can.
It seems odd that, in trying to write about Goodman’s poems, I have come back again and again to his own life, but the two are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. I have not even begun to suggest the diversity of this volume, the wide variety of poetic forms, the impressive longer poems, the wildly funny ballads (including one of my favorite Goodman stanzas, which closes “The Ballad of St. Patrick,” a poem mocking sexual repression, “For to have lovely children / takes patience, intellect, and luck, / and God’s grace, and affection, /but first you have to f.”). Perhaps the most impressive individual poems are the two sections of sonnets, particularly the second; somehow the sonnet form, the beloved hand-me-down from Milton, was ideally suited to Goodman’s poetic gift.
I have made this essay personal because I find I cannot be objective about Paul Goodman. I have never fully understood what it is about the man that has so compelled me, what held in my mind the memory of those few days I saw him, what kept me searching through his works until I found access to them. I have little idea what his standing should be in the history of literature. As it is, he is not a famous poet, hardly a known one, and his fiction has been almost totally ignored, though Vintage, along with this paperback edition of the Collected Poems, has also brought out a fine new edition of The Empire City. For me he is one of the most remarkable figures America has produced. I regard The Empire City as a somewhat flawed book, but always interesting, often brilliant, a world-in-itself: an unnoticed classic. The poems seem to me fresh in insight, startling in diction, rhythmically pleasing and inventive. They are like no other body of poetry I know. But I am most grateful to this volume for its vivid portrait of an authentic man.
Little Te Deum I’m not in pain, I owe no debts, far as I know nobody hates enough to harm me, no disgrace tomorrow stares me in the face Far as I know no new disaster is threatening my near and dear, and I am less by nameless fears beset than in my younger years. Thee God for this I therefore praise interim of undesperate days although it will not long endure. I do not live the various hour as the happy do or say: of homespun of oatmeal gray without a blazon is the flag that I hold up and do not wag.