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Goodman, Paul 1911–1972
Goodman was a controversial American poet, playwright, novelist, short story writer, and social commentator. His voluminous writings, expressing his social radicalism, have led to his being called "a communitarian anarchist-pacifist of protean intellect and prolific pen." (See also Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
[Goodman's] chosen art is discourse—in the old sense of dialogue ferreting truth by bound and rebound, by unembarrassed exchange of intimate vehemence. To use that fine twist of phrase in Coriolanus: he does not "coy a man." The hands are notable: they contour thought and the living, fluid shape of argument as if it were pottery. The forward hunch, the literal pressing home of an idea, suggest an artisan involved in the recoil or yielding of a tangible medium. (p. 158)
He is trying to restore to a society gone violent or indifferent (and the violence is bred of the uncaring) a sense of live, exploring debate. Between the closing walls of technological determinism and political cliché, he is trying to hack out elbow room for the imagination. The novels, the poems, the polemics, the tough-minded reveries of the utopian, spring from an axiom of hope: from the assertion that the imperatives of our social and political condition are only apparent, that they do not enshrine the only possibility…. Against the unexamined crassness of habitual politics, against the cynicism which grows from impotence, Goodman declares the shaping power of individual contrivance.
The fantastic thing is that Goliath has noticed…. First, [Goodman matters] to those he is attacking, to those who represent the indiscriminate economic weight and power-hypocrisies of our society. (pp. 158-59)
Abroad also. Though it was savaged by English reviewers, Growing Up Absurd has had its impact. Goodman's is about the only American voice that young English pacifists and nuclear disarmers find convincing. (p. 159)
When Goodman's prose works, it has the helpful impatience of a good machinist's manual. But often it is careless and woolly (… one thinks of Hazlitt on Cobbett: "One has no notion of him as making use of a fine pen"). The point is not trivial. When they are set down grossly, with little attention to the resources and complexities of the medium, ideas emerge as simpler—and that often means as less exciting and less true—than they are. Unlike Ruskin, who worked along similar lines of criticism and utopia, Goodman has not given his proposals the untimeliness of beauty.
He is too honest not to know that. He reports of himself that he aimed to be a playwright, novelist, and poet. But the hour is late and too many urgent jobs need doing: "I must write, freely, the kind of poems and stories that belong to a person who dutifully takes on these other responsibilities of citizenship. Yet the task is too much for me." Both the moral choice and the statement of defeat are deeply Jewish. But as one looks at the prodigious amount of work done, there is no sense of failure; only the exhilarating sight of a man fighting windmills which have, in fact, turned out to be Philistine giants. Mr. Goodman is a mensoli. The species is getting rare. (p. 163)
George Steiner, "On Paul Goodman" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1963 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, August, 1963, pp. 158-63.
Goodman has recently said some interesting and kind things about Christians (e.g., "Student Chaplains," New Republic, Jan. 7, 1967; "Post-Christian Man" in Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals, Vintage Books, 1964) and it is proper that a response be attempted…. I do not come to bury Goodman—that is, to Christianize him, though his devotion to what he often calls the Creator Spirit tempts one to call him a kind of secular theologian—but to praise, thank, and try to understand him. (p. 1046)
Goodman has set down [in Utopian Essays] the moral presupposition that informs his work as a social critic: "It is only by the usual technological and organizational procedures that anything can be accomplished. But with these procedures, and the motives and personalities that belong to them, fresh initiative is discouraged and fundamental change is prevented"…. Obviously, Goodman is neither Luddite nor hippie. He considers technology and politics both necessary and possible. In discussing his own view of technology he rejects alike the pessimism of Jacques Ellul, the optimism of Teilhard and the neutrality of McLuhan; for he holds that technologies are too variable for a simple response of praise or blame. Goodman believes that we are able to exercise both control and moral scrutiny over the technologies that are to serve us, and that "utility, efficiency, comprehensibility, reparability, ease and flexibility of use, amenity, and modesty" can properly be the basis of judgment…. Urbanization and the modern city he faces with the same realism. He celebrates neither flight to the soil nor urban anonymity. Instead, he offers specific remedies for concrete problems like traffic, city planning, architecture, education, the urban-rural balance, poverty and powerlessness.
The curious strength and uniqueness of Goodman as a social thinker surely lie at just this point: he refuses to make distinctions that other people think obvious. We have already seen his refusal to separate ethics and politics. Here we must note his refusal to distinguish between the practical and the utopian. He declares that his concrete proposals for specific problems are utopian only in that no one believes they can work. But his point seems to be that in a world where "if it works, it's obsolete," only the utopian is truly practical, only the utopian can tell us something we don't already know.
It is this mixture of pragmatism and utopianism—a mixture he shares with his true progenitors, William James and John Dewey—that sets Paul Goodman into the populist, radical tradition of American social thought. His confidence in this tradition explains why he is less impressed by Karl Marx than many of his generation. It also explains why he tends to have so little trust in theory and inclines instead to trust "genitals, heart and head, family and friends." (p. 1047)
William Hamilton, "Exile from Paradise—A Garland for Paul Goodman," in The Christian Century (copyright 1967 Christian Century Foundation; reprinted by permission from the August 16, 1967 issue of The Christian Century), August 16, 1967, pp. 1046-47.
[Goodman says of The Lordly Hudson, his collected poems]: "I have not tried much for individual beautiful poems—though I think I have occasionally hit one by luck—but I am more satisfied with the whole than with the parts." Their very existence, then, "proving" something, they represent, these poems taken as a whole, an important thrust of Goodman's total effort, an achievement refractory to assessment for two reasons: not only do we resist a reading of a man's poems as if they were one poem, the parts and pieces being no more than inflections of his cause rather than individual victories over the Silence, but further we resist regarding a man's poems as merely another weapon in his armory—modernism has made the poet's office such an hieratic one that it is something of a heresy to consider the writing of poems as no more than a normative function…. Not surprisingly, The Lordly Hudson—in which Goodman's perennial burden, man in the world he has made for himself, is explored, lamented and praised—has been largely unacknowledged as poetry; not so fortunate as Lawrence, with whom he shares, of course, an Old Testament moralizing and a thoroughly contemporary rebelliousness, and not so powerfully endowed, which may explain the unluckiness, Goodman has simply never surfaced as a poet. Indeed his fiction as well—his tremendous four-part novel The Empire City, his many volumes of stories, fables and plays—has become accessible, in the simplest bibliographical sense, only in the wake of his explicit denunciations and proposals, his criticisms of the way we live now and the way we might be living—what he calls "the choreography of society and solitude." The culture has received Goodman rather as Wagner received Meyerbeer—"a Jew banker to whom it occurred to write operas"—a Jewish rhetorician to whom it occurred to write poems. For one characteristic of our culture is a mistrust of the imagination as a practical instrument; we dismiss as utopian the insights which do not reach us by an interlocking directorate of committees, agencies, foundations and the sixteen-year chain-gang of our educational system. (p. 154)
Goodman's emphasis on a reading of his Collected Poems as a whole, as a Leaves of Grass-type experience, rather than as a series or even as a scattering of beautiful realizations, lucky hits and near misses, is part of the same impulse toward convergence, unity, connections within the self. (p. 156)
I find that Goodman's series of Sonnets, which are often stories in little, the form remarkably mastered by a technical ease not always apparent in the Short Poems, compress all his qualities and themes into their happiest body. The self-exhortation, the American mythus, and the intimate voice speaking through a formal convention (Goodman's most frequent breaches with success occur when he refuses a verse discipline and speaks out; he is not often possessed enough of means to sing a capella, as it were) produce, as in "For Henry Hudson" the type of his achievement, and it deserves to stand as a representative one…. (p. 159)
[He] is, more than any American poet alive, the true heir and disciple of the Good Grey Poet, mining the verge of the inclusive experience; and if he does not have Whitman's genius for suggesting that he is a Cosmos in himself, relying of necessity on the received forms to stiffen his talent, he is apter to catch his own posture, even his own imposture, in a reflexive and restorative irony. The other, public irony is that Paul Goodman's poetry has been obscured—cancelled, as a Sacred Book—by its situation in his canon—if he had written only poems, he would I think have held the place in American poetry today that sexuality, say, has in our assessment of human possibilities—central, flawed, affording occasions for joy and fulfillment. (p. 162)
Richard Howard, "Paul Goodman," in his Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 153-63.
[Paul Goodman] belonged among those authors who are remembered less for what they wrote than for who they were. As a teacher he did not bring a new message but evoked the voice that had been slumbering in the imagination of his audience. His thought was neither very original nor in any way systematic. A eulogy that were to try a summary of his ideas could only reveal their contradictions. (p. 54)
Growing Up Absurd ends with a disorderly collection of abandoned causes and missed revolutions which he would like to pick up. I think it is fair to say that he was an American populist who sometimes dared to come to radical conclusions…. Like other books that deserve a note in history, [Growing Up Absurd] is a loosely written, poorly researched job, but its stance was timely. It gave voice to a generation's feeling of being forlorn and helpless in a world for which it assumed no responsibility. There is a nostalgia (or Weltschmerz, with a denunciation of the world attached) in the book which sometimes reminds one of The Sorrows of Young Werther: the world has been fixed up before the poet came. To give this plaint some scientific foundation, Paul Goodman wrote an introductory chapter about "human nature." In this chapter, however, human nature does not have all the rich potentialities or the plasticity which he ascribed to human nature in other books; it resembles very much the instinctual creature which is found in the works of Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, ignoring the society that molds and the civilization that develops it. All instincts are naively supposed to be good and all societal influences appear as hostile to ego development. Having previously understood man as the product of his own civilization and defining his gods as he makes himself and his values, we are back at Rousseau's "noble sauvage." Obviously this image was lapped up by young people who felt that sending them to college was the greatest injustice ever done to any group of people. "You are the most exploited part of the population," Paul Goodman told them, flattering their ability to feel sorry for themselves. (p. 60)
I have no prejudice against homosexuals, but I don't expect an author to inform me that he is gay every ten pages. I suppose Paul flaunts his sexuality before the reader not because he was an exhibitionist but because he wishes to show that he is not afraid of his "animal nature." That may serve a purpose; but what he shows is a very alienated, almost artificial and compulsive animal nature…. Mankind is neatly split into those whom he merely uses and those whom he meets humanly "face to face"…. Such splitting should not happen to a writer who insists on page after page that the whole man must be involved and that all human relations should be total.
Fortunately, most of his followers mistook Paul correctly: He was no sex cultist but meant to show his defiance of prohibitions, inhibitions and hypocrisy. He was not liberating sex for its own sake but along with and as a symbol of the general disinhibiting of human relations. When he spoke about liberation he did not sound like the Marquis de Sade or Marcuse, but like Feuerbach or the young Marx. His conception of man and in particular of youth, of its education and of its revolution, was that of a cultural resurgence pushing aside the old structures that were preventing man's further development. In his later writings he conceived man as the first animal who had made himself, and when he speaks of alienation, he does not charge that we have lost our original goodness but specifically and topically that certain organizations are holding us back. (pp. 64-5)
Henry Pachter, "Paul Goodman—A 'Topian' Educator," in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Fall, 1973, pp. 54-67.
While he lived, Paul Goodman had little reputation as a poet, just as he had little reputation as a political thinker in the generally accepted sense of the term. There was misunderstanding in both cases. His well known activity as a social critic, dealing with moral, psychological, and cultural issues, tended to obscure his public character as artist….
Goodman himself contributed to the general impression that his social insight had no political dimensions, and no political consequences. First, he made frequent and explicit denials of interest or competence in politics. (p. 23)
Further, Goodman was eager to be loved and praised, perhaps more than most, because he had never said goodbye to his own feelings, and for that reason he felt his long eclipse to be a kind of painful exile. His special ambition was to be of use, and the pain of living for so long with that ideal unrealized may have made him diffident about those powers of his that were not blindingly obvious, at least to him. In talking about politics, which he persistently called by other names, diffidence sometimes made him sound arch, as if by way of apology. Or it allowed him to advance proposals that he called practical, without paying a decent attention to the revolution in our practice that would be a necessary precondition for instituting any of these. His political insight was profound. So much is clear from his shrewd diagnosis of our social troubles. But his political will was enfeebled, for he was a man of his time and experienced the discouragements that we all labor under.
And finally, another powerful reason why Goodman's talents in political speculation and poetry, too, have not been generally admitted is inherent in the nature of those talents as he expressed them. His powers, his very originality, had a homegrown, provincial cast, a Thoreauvian streak of cussedness that, as occasion offered, showed him foolish or sublime. (pp. 25-6)
In any case, his poems and his social designs, of extraordinary interest in themselves, are of a piece. Their congruent powers and limitations stand forth clearly when the two bodies of work are held in contemplation together. Considering one, we find hints of the best use to make of the other. And since the author of both is mostly disprized as a poet, or sayer of true things, and as a political thinker, or sayer of true things, it would be worthwhile to discuss those two functions of the man. But that is not the purpose of this essay.
To turn to the poetry, then, it is on the whole understandable that in any discussion of poets and "the state of poetry," Paul Goodman's name is not likely to be mentioned. He was in one respect remarkably unliterary, for he was always out of fashion; it is no small part of the literary gift to be interested in saying what an audience, any audience, is ready to hear. Goodman's contemporaries were not his audience—he was too simple, too impersonal, too patriotic for their taste. Mostly he addressed himself to a synod of the dead, or at least the unregenerate. For modern as he was in his appetite for "problems" and "solutions," he was archaic in his sense of what poetry is. The work itself is marked by his conception of it. He understood it as prophecy, which does not deal in problems or solutions, nor in those problems cut to the poor man's purse which inform the greater part of contemporary verse—the moods of the poet, his velleities of feeling, the monumentalization of the sentient ego—all things sanctified by the psychoanalytic religion. (I speak here of Goodman's best work. Like any other good poet, he wrote hundreds of honest trifles, some rubbish, and a scant handful of verses that showed him to be a master.) Prophecy, on the contrary, deals with the common life and fate. It is addressed to the common aspiration, and is intrinsically public. That is true of Paul Goodman's poems. Even though he writes in an age when the altars are abandoned, there is no received form of worship, and he must sometimes invent rites and mysteries that inevitably give a gnomic air to his utterance. (pp. 27-8)
[Goodman] has an instinct for rhetoric. He most often begins a sonnet by blurting out the most important thing he has to say…. He does his hemming and hawing offstage. The poem is the occasion for vatic utterance, and he emerges like the Pythian priestess from the cave, wreathed in smoke and crying out what the god has given her to say. Then, too, his rhetoric turns without strain to a kind of homely grandeur, most Wordsworth-like. (p. 28)
Goodman's assumption is that the poet is not distinguished by imagination but by his sense of fact. He does not put on airs, and especially not airs of sophistication. He tells us what the fact is. (p. 30)
Emile Capouya, "The Poet as Prophet," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall/Winter, 1974, pp. 23-30.
Paul Goodman as poet was widely condemned by poets and critics (most scurrilously by Norman Mailer in Armies of the Night), yet he thought of himself to the end as "a man of letters, primarily a poet." What are we to make of this? I think the fact is that Goodman had a different conception of poetry from the prevailing one. Poetry for him, especially in his later years, was the art of having nothing much to say and saying it well, or at least interestingly, or at least saying it. Of course, he often had a great deal to say: "The Lordly Hudson," for example, is a classic (though curiously and, to me, disconcertingly revised by Goodman for this posthumous collection); "Figures of Giacometti," "Bread and Wine" and "At the San Remo Bar" are moving and successful experiments in form…. Some of his aphorisms work beautifully…. His laments for America and his sense of exile in it helped set the tone for an entire generation of younger poets. His love of the colloquial—even to the point of pig-headed pidgin—ushered in the possibility of a poetry of ballad proportions, which pays its dues to tradition and yet may be spoken in a modest everyday voice. (In this he had a good deal in common with Bob Dylan, though of course more eruditely and less musically.)
Goodman respected very few conventions. He believed in plain speech, and his most interesting poems have the virtue of a slightly off-center bluntness, the astonishment of something that can only be recognized as common sense. At their worst, though, their bluntness is simply crude. To put it another way, his ideas for poems were often better than the poems themselves. Rather than beautifying the ugly, he tended to uglify the beautiful. Often this had the effect of cramp, a cramp the poetry was written to dispel and ended up prolonging. He repeated himself terribly—and feared this, as did Picasso, whom he admired—and his prosy poems are tedious indeed, especially in their self-pity. If this is poetry, one might ask, with Mailer, who needs prose?
Goodman, of course, himself needed prose, and wrote over thirty extraordinary books of it. Yet when it came to representing his daily consciousness in an occasional form, he chose to write what he called poems, spaced and paced something like poems. "The best thing in them," he said of his first collection, The Lordly Hudson, "is their attitude, the proof that a man can still experience his life in this way. I have not tried much for individual beautiful poems—though I think I have occasionally hit one by luck—but I am more satisfied with the whole than with the parts." (He might have said, with Whitman, "This is no book/Who touches this, touches a man." This is, of course, bad form, in today's academies and anti-academies.) Poetry-as-life-chronicle was his conception, and I think the sad thing is that he was forced to it—forced to too many ugly poems—in part because our culture does not approve of short, informal prose pieces. As epigrammatist and diarist he was in the league of Pascal, Nietzsche, and Camus. Had he been French, he might have written prose-paragraphs in the manner of René Char or Paul Eluard, and would not have been taken to task as a bad poet. But the culturally approved forms have their weight, and deadweight, even for someone as rambunctious as rambunctious as Paul Goodman. Forced off the reservation, he had to—in one of his own favorite phrases—"make do" in a form that some people, at least, might read.
His last, previously unpublished poems were written under clouds: his son's death, his heart condition, his disenchantment with the young, and, as always, the condition of his belovedly loathed America. Their monotony is depressing, their formal awkwardness less lively than the earlier gracelessness, yet for all that he still made much sense, and he could still be playful. (pp. 24-5)
That Paul Goodman could not, as either poet or citizen, transcend for long the stasis of Nixonian America is a terrible judgment: not on him, but on what he liked to call "my world my only one."… [At] the end, he wrote more poems, in order—again, along with Picasso—to be able to write the next; and, I suppose, not knowing what else to do with them, he published them. If many of his choices were, I think, wrong, if he mucked around where he might have worked harder or kept silent, at least he made, once again, a book in which one could recognize a life: a book one could learn from, not simply admire. He wrote in Growing Up Absurd: "Let me formulate the artistic disposition as follows: it is reacting with one's ideal to the flaw in oneself and in the world, and somehow making that reaction formation solid enough in the medium so that it indeed becomes an improved bit of real world for others." He did this often enough to be remembered as a poet, and too well to be embalmed for study. (pp. 25-6)
Todd Gitlin, "Paul Goodman, Poet," in Commonweal (copyright © 1975 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 28, 1975, pp. 24-6.
As a stylist, Goodman has the defects of his virtues. I am personally unhappy that he lacks the most central gift in poetry next to a good ear, a metaphoric imagination. His metaphors are few, and commonly banal. I suspect this correlates with his mistrust of the luxurious and wasteful, that he inclined to think of metaphor as a merely decorative device, something to sugar the spoon. (p. 292)
On the other hand, the virtues. If American critics valued formal originality, or even if they valued (as they all claim to do) organic form, Goodman would have been recognized as a major poet long ago. The sense of plain materials fills the texture of his verse, as the admiration for them filled his thought. The poems read like a scissorcut at the edge of yardgoods and the clean ripping all across the cloth; or a man chopping wood. The language has the vigor of many nouns and verbs, few adjectives and adverbs—hence substance and deed unrefined, unqualified, unsubtle. A quirky rough prosody for the speech rhythms of the (usually) long sentences to fit into, enjambed and breaking in midline more likely than not, something like dangling shoelaces. A colloquial diction, which, however, can shift back and forth to the learned or archaic phrase, not for pomp or points, but because that is how a lifelong scholar who spends time in New York City streets has to think. "Motion of mind in English syntax" straight-out declarative, or angled into inversion and ellipse which make the comparable syntactic features of Berryman look like artful hollow stage props. Goodman was proud of his style for what he could make it say, and apart from having his lines scan and rhyme when he wanted them to, he may not have thought much about it. It fits perfectly, like well-worn clothes, his quick-witted and defenceless self. (pp. 292-93)
Goodman bawls, boasts, gets excited about Immanuel Kant, exhibits his penis, and kvetches endlessly. All his ideas are subversive, and he means everything literally. He has no shame…. For some people, all this will be as refreshing as daylight. For most readers and critics of American poetry it will not even be poetry, and this is reasonable. Writers of indecorum preach to the converted, maybe giving blood transfusions to shrivelled convictions; they should not expect a broad audience. (pp. 294-95)
Alicia Ostriker, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1976 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 2, 1976.
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