“Such beauty as hurts to behold …”
The Wikipedia entry for Paul Goodman quotes from what, depending on mood and weather and the usually dreadful news, is sometimes — no — what is often my favorite poem:
How well they flew together side by side
the Stars and Stripes my red and white and blue
and my Black Flag the sovereignty of no
man or law! They were the flags of pride
and nature and advanced with equal stride
across the age when Jefferson long ago
saluted both and said, “Let Shays’ men go.
If you discourage mutiny and riot
what check is there on government?”
The gaudy flag is very grand on earth
and they have sewed on it a golden border,
but I will not salute it. At our rally
I see a small black rag of little worth
and touch it wistfully. Chaos is Order.
Just look at that thing! Everything about it is wrong! It’s a damned sonnet with an explicit moral message; the sentences meander as if they’d pushed around by the exigencies of rhyme and meter — except that “blue” is rhymed with “go” and “ago,” “side” with “riot,” and “Today” with “rally,” so clearly the poet didn’t much mind an off-rhyme, and besides, nearly every line is enjambed, and all but 2 commas are missing: the first introducing Jefferson’s statement ending at the turn, which happens two syllables from the end of line 9 and is marked with a carriage return and lloonngg indentation (exact and careful work, a Petrarchan sonnet written by an anarchist), the second emphasizing that Goodman, unlike Jefferson, will not today salute both flags.
But, oh, how he longs to! Poem after poem laments his alienation from a country and people he cannot help but love. One poem salutes the constitution — provided it is interpreted by Hugo Black; another celebrates how our spacemen on the moon look just as we imagined them; here’s the sestet from another sonnet, “The Americans Resume Bomb-Testing, April 1962”:
“Resign! Resign!” the word rings in my soul
—is it for me? or shall I make a sign
and picket the White House blindly in the rain,
or hold it up on Madison Avenue
a silent vigil, or trudge to and fro
gloomily in front of the public school?
(6 months earlier, the Russians had resumed testing first. That poem begins “My poisoned one, my world!”)
The personal is political, we used to say, and for Goodman it really was, or at least his passion was equal for both, and he did not keep them separate. “Easter 1968” begins “When young proclaim Make Love Not War / I back them up, I back them up, / and some are brave as they can be. / But they don’t make love to me.” Again, the metrical/syntactic oddity: “When young proclaim” seems as if “the” was left out because the meter wanted it out, but the last line of the quatrain, the first that rhymes (!), abandons the regular tetrameter of the first three. The effect is quite startling, and the meter never reappears in the last two quatrains, which details how one particular young man disappointed him.
Goodman was openly bisexual (this was when even gay folk didn’t like bi folk), and his poems are frequently explicit, and often funny:
The dark armpits of my unwashed
honey taste acrid but her crotch
musky and delicious with
its primrose of the field
where in summer cows browse
in the hollow and bees buzz.
Her tiny lice, seen up close,
wildly wave their legs like spikes
of alfalfa in the gale.
Leaping my shadow and Prick my dog
I took to walk the park
the streets the bars the wooden dock
all a hot afternoon.
My shadow had a lively run
and stretched out long he came back home,
but Prick had never a sniff or jump
the twenty-first of June.
He was always, even in despair, in love with the world. The title of this post is the first line of a poem marked “(MANNER OF SAPPHO),” which ends
This lust that blooms like red the rose
is none of mine but as a song
is given to its author knows
not the next verse yet sings along.
You ask what I am muttering
stupefied, it is a prayer
of thanks that there is such a thing
as you in the world there.
I’ve often written about Goodman, starting way back in 1995, on UseNet. Many of his political books, his work on Gestalt Therapy and his general social commentary are still in print, but only a single ($99!) copy of his poems appears to be available. That is a great pity.