Paul Goodman Goodman, Paul (Vol. 4) - Essay

Goodman, Paul (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Goodman, Paul 1911–1972

Goodman, an American poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, urban planner, psychotherapist, social, political, literary, and educational critic, was an intellectual of tremendous energy and range. During the 1960's, his suggestions for educational and social reform were widely disputed. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; obituary, Vols. 37-40.)

If you compare Goodman's deliberately utopian thesis [in Growing Up Absurd] with the two kinds of social criticism that are now in vogue—the merely descriptive sociology of a Vance Packard that exploits the present uneasiness of the American middle class, and the obstinate "position" taking that one sees in C. Wright Mills's self-consciously defiant "line" in favor of Castro and other unpopular causes—a book like Growing Up Absurd seems better than it is, since it is full of the intellectual dignity of the old-fashioned radical independent thinking things out for himself. Goodman is not only an extremely intelligent and acute social observer of troubled young men, delinquents, beatniks, Village apaches; he is also the last person in the world to take existing society as necessary and he is incapable of flattering it. He is free of the superficiality that seems to possess so many social commentators in America just now—writers who are no longer able to see their society from outside, and who, like Max Lerner and how many others, just now talk as if they were osteopaths and America were their patient. It is ridiculous to talk about the waste makers and the Mom complex, the lonely crowd and status symbols, without addressing oneself directly to the historic nature of the profit system, our middle-class culture, and the obvious imbalance between our wealth and the deprivations suffered by most other human beings. Too many Americans now want to remain fully attached to our social system and at the same time to draw the rewards of a little sophisticated (and wholly external) criticism of it.

Goodman, by contrast, is a thoroughgoing philosophic and intellectual radical. Not only is he able to see American society in perspective; he frees the reader, page after page, of the intellectual vagueness that comes from so much identification with our present scheme of things; the current alternative—identification with historical "destiny" in the shape of a Gomulka or a Castro—is equally impossible for him. Goodman thinks for himself; and in upholding the sanctions and demands of a human nature freed from contemporary American fears and shibboleths, he brings home the constant stimulus to independence of thought that lies in psychoanalysis (Goodman is a lay practitioner)….

Goodman's tradition is that of the literary Romantics—the belief in a suppressed capacity in human nature that unites the Romantic poets to the psychology of Freud. His essay is often exhilarating in its independence and is full of penetrating insights into the intense quarrel with society that rumbles under the prosperous surface of our society. But I don't believe in his book as a diagnosis of youth in general. When Goodman talks about youth, he seems to be talking not about the suburban youth whose games he has never seen but about a whole class of consciously alienated young men in the city….

Although Goodman ends his book with a list of the many modern revolutions whose frustration, he thinks, explains the impasse of youth today, it is noteworthy that he speaks always of "fellows," "lads," "boys," "kids," and never of the actual social, economic, and racial categories among youth who are in rivalry with the established order and who are now making their way up. His analysis virtually overlooks the disaffections of young girls, who he thinks always have a vocation anyway as mothers and housekeepers…. Goodman's analysis is most valuable, I think, as an articulation of what those who are actively independent of society really want for themselves. The acuteness of many of his observations articulates the radical energy and spiritual freedom of the kind of intellectual who is fast disappearing in favor of the organization-manager-turned-critic-of-himself and the nostalgic radical who has become desperate for a "position."

Alfred Kazin, "Youth Is a Pressure Group" (copyright © 1960 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown & Co. in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press), in his Contemporaries, Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 438-42.

Goodman's poetry, as one might expect from his career as a critic of American mores and institutions, is filled with forthright political statement, following the model of Wordsworth and Shelley in such matters…. For many years he has advanced a half-mystical conception of the relation between our civilization and its neglect of the resources that should be made available to the citizenry….

One might view Goodman's work as in some degree a throwback to the romantic and polemical style of the best popular poets of the last century. To some extent his refusal to internalize the ills of the age as thoroughly as many other modern poets do, obliterating their character as social issues and offering up their own psyches as more interesting symbolic substitutes, points toward such a throwback. But there is a thoroughly contemporary side to his poetic style and thought as well….

Goodman has written [some] inward poems that bring his work into rapport with the confessional tendency of the age—particularly his poems about love, both homosexual and normal, and poems like 'Long Lines' that recall the sonnets of Wordsworth (or the tone of his and Coleridge's odes) but are thoroughly modern in their dislocations of syntax and of the hexameter pattern, their shifts of focus, their specific diction, and, most important, their essential attitude….

M. L. Rosenthal, in his The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (copyright © 1967 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1967, pp. 313-16.

I've reservations about [Goodman's] poems, which are very unequal and often sloppy, not the work of a man who's put poetry first, but still very interesting reading. (Some quite accomplished technicians seem to have forgotten it's all a waste of time unless the poems are interesting.) The stories are undoubtedly [his] best [work], and some of them—'Our Visit to Niagara' for instance—seem to me of a very high order indeed. Five years gave me the sort of satisfactions Gide's Journals were supposed to give but didn't—because, I think, Goodman's a great deal more intelligent than Gide and without the awful encumbrance of Gide's pretensions and concept of himself. Neglect accounts for a lot of Goodman's gay strengths as well as his sloppy weaknesses. But mostly what wins admiration—or, for some, I expect, repels—is the person: the unbeatable aboriginal artist, turning his wounds into sources of power and affirmation, essentially living out of his passions, yet distinguished by his shining level-eyed observation and polished intellect, his sense of humour, plain speech and courage, learned in the human sciences, with a vigorous analytical power and an ability to synthesize his findings into fiction with 'vision': that is, it's all his own, wherever he got it from, and it makes you see the world differently. And it's relevant—it's about the world, about where we are as a race; not private, not humped-off out….

Goodman's not adventurous enough in form for me, and he's often too easily satisfied with getting out the basis for a poem; but he writes very cleanly and simply in his own voice, and he gets the essential information down.

Herbert Lomas, "Coming Across," in London Magazine, April-May, 1973, pp. 152-57.

By his own count Paul wrote forty books. The apparent diversity of his work is actually the unfolding of one large underlying theme: the search for harmony of the life made by man, and the life not made, but given.

It was a theme that entailed many duties. We find him, for example—especially in the poems, and the autobiographical Five Years—speaking of the task of creating a self. ("Long have I labored to make me Goodman.") It was such a self, however, as stands in contrast to the familiar persona of art (as a poet imagines a bardic figure and tries to live it), for it was the minimal, or transparent self implicit in Aristotle's definition of the highest good: the unimpeded functioning of the powers that are distinctly human….

Paul's … public and the private self became one. The therapist and the poet were the same man. Paul's writings on psychotherapy are intrinsically political. His political writing is philosophic. In short, wherever one touches his work, one finds his major theme, which was a task of living as well as of writing.

There are other ways of saying this. He lived "the examined life." His tools were art, psychotherapy, and philosophy. Or one can say simply that thought was real to him, and that the truth as he saw it was never a mere intellectual proposition, but a commandment. Or one can say—as Paul does, in many poems—that he "staggered from need to need," was an exile among men, had come "from another planet." The fact remains that most of his thought is devoted to the nature that is prior to ego, its progress through the self, and the requisites of the human home (political, social, ethical, etc.) necessary to fulfillment. (His name for the whole, at times, is Adam.) These are the subjects not only of his social criticism but also of Gestalt Therapy, and in more imaginative forms, of his short fiction and his major work The Empire City….

Paul's poetry is much distinguished by its immediacy of feeling and meaning, its daylight actuality, over a wide range of experience. His learning appears unabashedly as the way he looks at things (not as a map of culture), and he suffers no convention of "the poetic," but every significant turn of thought, emotion, and event seems to have shaped a poem. The classic themes of love and death recur often, and recur in their classic form, that is, not as themes but as persons and emotions. There are somber prayers, and poems of an elevated nature, and poems of humor, sometimes of hilarity. At all periods there are simple lyrics beautifully realized: the early "A Cyclist," and "The flashing pigeons as they wheel"; and the late haiku, of which he wrote many….

He wrote ballades, and ballads, sonnets, narrative poems like the stern and strong "The Well of Bethlehem"; and analytic odes like "The Character of Washington," and the early "The Death of Leon Trotsky."

Like D. H. Lawrence, Paul is a poet "without a mask." The voice of the poetry is persuasively the man himself … and he is in his real city of New York. In our present extravagantly metaphoric conventions, with their elaborate personae, and multiple (finally rather dim) refractions of experience, I find the brilliant actuality of his poems infinitely refreshing.

Paul's is "occasional poetry" (and he was fond of quoting Goethe: "the highest kind"). Technically, he is often brilliant. The prevailing effect, however, is of spare accuracy capturing experience already deeply felt and thought. Poem by poem his aim is modest. The poems accumulate to an oeuvre of striking presence and magnitude; the more so in that the life embodied here was itself a rare venture in our time….

Paul's powers as an artist are not merely striking, or praiseworthy. As powers, they are powers of greatness. They were the endowment and the triumphs of a man who, like Coleridge, was also beset by ills and was injured by his own age. Both powers and failings are broadly visible in his art. Some of Paul's stories and poems, and the late novel Making Do, are very seriously flawed. The best of his short work, however, has already been compared—justly, I believe—with that of Melville and Hawthorne. And in the span from Chaucer until now, The Empire City must be counted one of our grand eccentric books.

George Dennison, "In Memory of Paul Goodman," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1973 by the Estate of Paul Goodman), December 13, 1973, pp. 50-3.

[Goodman's Collected Poems] will, I think, last a long while, longer perhaps than his social criticism….

The writing of poetry was essential to Goodman, because it was an immediate way for him to examine, if not always to understand, what was happening in his life…. [He] never stopped turning over the consequences of the "plain facts" that obsessed him, and he could not permanently down his wit….

Some of his poetry—sometimes bulky stretches of it—is only poetry because he said it was….

But, as F. O. Mathiessen, his fire turned blue, would tell his classes, "Clarity does not necessarily make poetry."…

There is much suffering, only rarely and transiently purged, in these poems because Goodman, as he put it, was "an orphan who had had a home." But there is also much about music, and pleasures of being and seeing in the New Hampshire countryside he loved. There is also much about sex, largely unrequited lust, and no little love….

Paul Goodman was a various man. "A man of letters in the old sense," he described himself, Goodman was also a man of the streets and of the academy (which he loved, though not most of its tenured priests). The voice of Paul Goodman's poetry, George Dennison writes in his characteristically honest and complexly compassionate memoir, "is persuasively the man himself—and he is in [his] real city of New York."

Nat Hentoff, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), January 24, 1974, p. 31.

Like many writers who feel an obligation to promote social change, and so devote their energies to criticism (James Agee was one, Harold Rosenberg is another), Goodman was more interested in the production of literature than in anything else. He himself was "that mystery of mysteries, the reformist radical," or so he describes a character from his immense novel, The Empire City. And nowhere is this desire to reform entire institutions more evident than in his poetry, where the "institution" is nothing less than life itself….

Goodman emphasized the importance of colloquial speech in his writing. He was a master of idiom, a brilliant stylist who knew how to turn language into a subtle instrument responsive to what he saw. One of his most original poems, "Epode. The New Bus Terminal," celebrates in ironic high style the completion of the Port Authority, alternating between the grandiose ("this new/this marvel where the buses overhead/roar to the provinces") and the demotic ("so I came inside/out of the lousy season"). In this he was like Delmore Schwartz, whose comic, exaggerated poetry took advantage of the tradition in order to satirize or elevate his subject.

More than Schwartz, though, I would say that Goodman's poems resemble Berryman's late religious phase. Less metered, less intense than Berryman's "Address to the Lord," much of Goodman's poetry is in the form of prayer, the wish to speak directly with God. His theology was uncomplicated, wanting only explanations about why things were as they were, and was expressed, like all his poetry, in the most economical speech possible….

Because he wrote so copiously, these poems vacillate between Utopian hope and a sort of Nietzschean stubbornness; one can learn from them nearly all the details of Goodman's own life, the trials encountered, the successes and loss.

I don't mean to make too large a claim for these poems. They depend on what he called elsewhere "the glorification of simple overt acts," and often require patience to read through simply because their intentions are so limited. Goodman wrote poetry with a deliberate awkwardness. Perhaps he thought it would be more democratic to practice a style so plain and rude.

James Atlas, "First Person," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), March 2, 1974, pp. 30-1.

As a writer, Goodman was a naturalist who analyzed human behavior and thought, often using his own as a model on which to center investigation. He was a Gestaltist, and his insistence was to see an object in its field, particularly where field and object touch. He became widely known in 1960 for Growing Up Absurd, an analysis of youth gangs, junior executives and Beats, written at the time Life magazine was running inspirational pieces on "Our National Purpose," and the nations were fighting the cold war. In this book Goodman argued that people had hardly any world to live in, even less to devote themselves to except, perhaps, the little life in the stances their egos had managed to eke out for them.

He, too, had etched, as a poet and writer, a self from the blocks of his intelligence and passion:

            Fatherless I was, nobody offered
            me to the muses. I imposed on them.

And done it in a world that he felt hindered not only his but most people's fundamental needs. He did not take seriously such a notion as a nation's providing a purpose. Psychologist and anarchist, Goodman knew that the realities of nations take one too far from actual experience and satisfaction (or disappointment) and, therefore, become dangerous. His poetry often records an encounter, in himself, where words and experience become each other, where experience is named into being and the boundaries of the self are discovered…. Or it is poetry that is written as a response to some occasion in the world: a government's resumption of nuclear testing, his finishing a book, his seeing a sunflower, a lover departed….

Just as students beginning to read Wordsworth read the preface to the Lyrical Ballads for his poetics and philosophy of language, so readers of Goodman might read the seventh chapter of the second volume of his Gestalt Therapy and the concluding chapters of his Speaking and Language: Defense of Poetry. Homespun as his poetry may sometimes appear, Goodman has wrought it with an intelligence well rooted in Western and non-Western literatures.

And, I will say it, there is sublimity in his poetry.

Neil Heims, "Who Sang the Lordly Hudson," in The Nation, June 29, 1974, pp. 824-26.