Ned Rorem

“Pure Contraption”

A Composer’s Essays
by Ned Rorem

Paul Goodman in his fiftieth year closed his journal thus: “I am not happy, yet as of today I would willingly live till 80. I have already lived longer than many another rebellious soul.”

Growing Up Absurd had finally brought him major prominence, although he had been preaching (and practicing) its contents all his life. If he was not happy, nobody wise with imagination and open eyes, can ever stay happy for long. But he was vital and fertile; more important for an artist, he was appreciated, even ultimately “understood,” when last week at sixty he died twenty years short of his goal.

It is 1938 in Chicago. Edouard Roditi and Paul Goodman stop by impromptu to see me (I am fourteen). From the back room I hear Mother say: “Sit down, young men, Ned will be right out.” To prepare an entrance I wash my hair. By the time I emerge they have left. Paul used to recount this episode as his most Proustian souvenir. I recount it as the first of a hundred occasions where narcissism made me miss out.

Yet I seldom missed out on Paul during the next years. To say that he came my most pertinent influence, social and poetic, would be an echo many a voice in the young groups who felt they to be as important to Paul as he was to them—the inevitable covetousness that comes when great men involve their entourage not only through their work but through their person. But that was long ago. (At the end, in the melancholy of fame, Paul Goodman was admired by thousands who, paradoxically, did not know his name. His original notions, having become general knowledge, decayed into slogans which the liberated youth spouted back at him to set him straight.)

My first songs date from then, all of them settings Paul Goodman’s verse. I may have written other kinds of song since, but none better. That I have never in the following decades wearied of putting his words to music is the highest praise I can show him; since I put faith in my own work, I had first to put faith in Paul’s. Through Paul I wrote not only songs to celebrate Sally’s smile, or Susan at play, or prayers for the birth of Matthew Ready (now gone too), but an opera Cain and Abel, a ballet (with Alfonso Ossorio), choral pieces, backgrounds for the Beck’s theatre, and nightclub skits. He was my Goethe, my Blake, and my Apollinaire.

No one will deny him as a serious thinker: the coming weeks will bring homages, emphasizing his contribution as sociologist, city planner, psychotherapist, linguistic theoretician, political and educational reformer. All will mention Growing Up Absurd; some will talk about his diary, Five Years, which juxtaposes tracts on creative method with carnal encounters; a few will applaud his novels (is that what they are?), The Grand Piano, The State of Nature, The Holy Terrors, and The Dead of Spring, a tetralogy on and iconoclast’s passage through the Empire City. But if he was that rare thing among radicals today, and educated poet, who will yet bring up the poetry? A disconcerting number of fans, even among his friends, did not realize he wrote poems.

That was partly his fault. Hardly modest, Paul nevertheless did not stress the variety of his talents. Like Jean Cocteau (the strongest of his early influences) who classified his own output—fiction, movies, plays, ballets, drawings, paintings, criticism and pure life under the one heading Poésie, so Paul Goodman called himself a humanist. “Everything I do has the same object,” he would say, a quite European non-specialist attitude for one so American or rather so New Yorkish. Yet his poetry is not the same as his other works. It rises higher and will be viewed as individual long after his thrilling but didactic ideas, pragmatic and doctrinaire, have been absorbed, as they will be, into our anonymous common culture.

Let me stress his frivolity, a quality contained in all artists, since all art is made from the contrasts formed by an ability to express relationships between the superb and the silly. Paul’s was not the simplistic sexual frivolity of a Mick Jagger, nor the thunderous German joke frivolity of a Beethoven, but the high-camp spiritually practical yet sad frivolity of , say, Haydn, Voltaire, Gogol, Auden, Billie Holiday.

Did you know he actually wrote music too? Not very inspired, sort of Brahmsian, and technically childlike. Like fellow composer Ezra Pound, he confused homemade discovery with professionalism, though any well-trained non-entity could have done better. Still, his writing about music, critically and philosophically, was less dumb than any layman’s since Thomas Mann.

With all his heterogeneity he never became (though for a time it threatened) a pop figure with catch phrases, like McLuhan or Buckminster Fuller. He was too compact for love at first sight. He was aloof and cool—traits not unusual in philanthropists, beginning with Freud. He never ceased to intimidate me because he was, and remains, The One whose stamp of approval I seek; childhood idols can never have clay feet. When the demands of glory grew, his warmth was directed more toward groups than towards individuals. I received his new poems then only through the mail. We had grown so apart that, on phoning ten weeks ago to ask about his health, I half hoped he wouldn’t answer. But he did.
“Should we be worried, Paul?” “Yes, we should.” Yet gently he added: “Nice to hear your voice, kiddo.” I sent love to Sally, and we promised ourselves an autumn reunion.

If Paul can die then anyone can die, even God, and who can we fall back on now? In 1939 he concluded an epitaph for Freud:

… suddenly dead for all our hopes and fears
is our guide across the sky and deep,
this morning a surprise for bitter tears,
a friendly dream now I am asleep.

Paul Goodman was a household poet, a poet who did not rework verse into Eliotian cobwebs of intricacy, but composed on the run, for immediate occasions, in the manner Frank O’Hara would make popular. Two examples:

In 1947 John Myers was madly trying to turn Mary’s Bar on 8th Street into another Boeuf sur le Toit. For the opening Paul and I concocted three blues which John and Frank Etherton intoned in the styles of Mistinguett and Stella Brooks. Heartbreaking. But hardly the speed of that clientele. At 2 a.m. Eugene Istomin took over the keyboard of an upright casserole and amide the fumes of laughter and beer performed Gaspard de la Nuit. Incredibly, that was the speed of the clientele. Next day Paul made his first-class Translation of the second-class prose-poems, by one Aloysius Bertrand, which had first inspired Ravel’s piano cycle, and for years Istomin reprinted these translations in the program of his international tours. (And those blues today? In the back of a trunk. But maybe the words and music would be the speed of our new clientele!)

Janet Fairbank was a youngish soprano who during the war years gave concerts of new American music, a specialty no less rare then than now. She was our sole voice, our outlet. We all collaborated on many a song that Janet sang; indeed, it was she who premiered my setting of Paul’s soaring words that still so grandly extol his beloved Manhattan, The Lordly Hudson. The evening she died, twenty-five years ago this month, Paul appeared on my doorstep with a poem. “Here” he said, “make some music out of this.” Three short stanzas describe how Janet sand our songs because she loved to sing, how we loved to make up songs for her to sing, how she is now mute and we are dumb. Too soon the final lines evoke Paul Goodman himself, with their question from the impotent survivor confronted with a dying fellow artist.

… If we
make up a quiet song of death,
who now shall sing this song we made
for Janet Janet not, because
(no other cause) she loved to sing?

August 1972

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