Famous Americans

Loren Goodman

Yale University Press

Thursday, May 8th, 2003

Disclosure: Loren Goodman’s time at Columbia coincided with mine. While I generally follow Publishers Weekly‘s lead in preferring not to talk about first books of poems, and given that my eyebrows arch automatically when I see other critics praise their friends, I would feel remiss if I failed to alert the reading public to Goodman’s work.

We knew he wrote poems—he would stand a short distance away, gesturing and smiling, and occasionally letting on that he knew us. From time to time he would take the stage at one of the many folk-music venues on campus that also accommodated poetry readings. From the very beginning, his work demonstrated a philosophical sensibility:

This is when I begin my discussions with Sidney
Morgenbesser. “Sidney” I say. “Morgenbesser”
I say. “Sidney Morgenbesser” I say. He looks up
And nods. Everyone nods. I stand up, my voice
Stands up. “Sidney Morgenbesser,” I say. Now he is
Nodding, nodding and smiling, “Morgenbesser,”
“Sidney, “Sidney,” “Morgenbesser.” “Morgenbesser,”
“Morgenbesser,” “Sidney,” “Sidney.” Then we discuss
Shloymee . . .

It may be useful to know that Goodman served a stint on the journal Telos; it may also help to know that Morgenbesser has been identified as the subject of the anecdote of the professor who responded to the eager philosophy-of-language student’s claim that there is no positive equivalent in English to the double negative with the curt and immediate rejoinder, “Yeah yeah.”

On the other hand, of equal use may be the knowledge that Goodman rowed crew and hails from Kansas. After graduation, Goodman periodically (and abruptly) vanished to attend various graduate programs, taking his MFA at Arizona, and, after a brief spell in the University of Buffalo law program, entering the PhD program in Poetics, where he came under the tutelage of his second great poetry teacher, Robert Creeley.

His first teacher, though, was the late Kenneth Koch, with whom Goodman engaged in many a protracted staring contest.

Of all the world’s great cities, none can boast the heart-pounding excitement of New York City. As the pulsating vitality bursts forth in creamy emulsion around the Statue of Liberty, it startles you with its realism.

Most recently, Goodman has taken up residence in Japan, where by various accounts he is retranslating Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories from the Japanese, is translating a prominent middleweight boxer’s memoirs, or is training and managing a prominent middleweight boxer. When pressed, Goodman remains evasive. His publicist states simply that he is “active in martial arts.”

I wish you much happiness,
In this time of piercing cold . . .

I have a favor to ask of you
I’ll be staying at the Imperial Hotel until May 10
I’d really like to get together and chat with you.

The cherry trees have started to blossom;

Would you be so kind as to come at least this once?
I’ll have beer and a light meal ready. (“Ex-Patriot,” 36)

The impulse to create one’s own “River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” is as a childish wish to never have one’s nose itch beside this pure and unpatronizing delight in the faintly refracted English of Japanese students.

What motivates Goodman? What unifies the approach of a poet at once given to manufacturing unknown works for a Max Von Sydow festival (as Castro opposite Omar Sharif’s title character in “Che!”, singing the part of Radames in Aida, in various bit parts as “Hawaiian Thug” and “Prof. Ned Brainard/Robotic Blob,” and all parts in the MVS-directed “Black Caesar”), playing the Who would win? Game (“William Shatner vs. Gil Gerard, who would win?” “World War I vs. World War II, who would win?”), and a profile of himself as a Mexican boxer? How did he uncover that subject of hidden concern to us all, the profane reliquaries of conquerors and geniuses?

It is not surprising that many of those who have seen Einstein’s brain and Napoleon’s penis wonder what they would taste like; people are accustomed to eating things from bottles and jars. (20)

I would say there are two qualities that Goodman looks for before he decides that a particular language act qualifies as Goodman-worthy: 1) it must include (and if possible splice together) two sentences of uncommonly ordinary beauty, or 2) it must be transcendently goofy.

While I was familiar in advance with many pieces in this book (I edited three of the twelve publications mentioned in the acknowledgments), please note that my favorite works in this noteworthy collection were new to me a month ago. I defy the reader not to smile at some point while reading the opening title sequence. My secret favorite piece is the Jarmusch-like non-drama “The Prize,” a dialogue echoing the Hemingway story in which disappointment at the fiction of George Meredith is expressed.

Charles’s room is very nice, the walls are covered
With colorful and witty collages he himself makes
“I like them,” I say
“Thank you,” he replies
“So who wants to go first?”
“I’ll go first,” says Charles
Charles reads a good short piece in a mellow voice
“That was good”
“Really?”
“Yes — I like the blue magnets,” I tell him

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7 Responses to “Famous Americans”

  1. human resources Says:

    Um, I don’t mean to be critical or anything,
    but are you folks aware of just how many typos this edition is sporting?

    It seems that most of the commas in Christine Hume’s review are now question marks, resulting in an otherwise right-on piece sounding as if it’s being dramatically interpreted by a drunk valley girl.

    “…it’s been forgotten or neglected?by publishers, funding agencies, and readers?and therefore…”

    (Rad.)

    In fact, the whole page is fucked up. The pictures and everything.

    Jordan’s piece has one particularly conspicuous mistake: “While I generally follow. Publisher’s weekly…” And I think there is one, if not two, of the errant question marks in question there as well.

    I’m sure you’re probably aware of this.

    To express my regret for having to be that letters-to-the-editor-guy, and because I think constant critic is a good idea, and also because I’m making a rotten sentence right now and this whole bit has hardly anything to do with literature, I offer up these fine Neil Hamburger jokes:

    “Why did the farmer start a punk rock band?
    Because he was tired of Hall & Oates.”

    “Why does Britney Spears sell so many millions of records?
    Because the public is horny and depressed.”

    “Why did Michael Jackson dangle his infant son over his hotel balcony?
    He was punishing him for refusing to finish his plate of sperm.”

  2. A Critical Reader Says:

    Dear Editors,

    The Davis review is sub-par. I learned little from it other than Goodman has an eclectic sensibility and that he lives in Japan. Futher, the excerpted lines aren’t particularly enticing either. Surely there were better choices–especially if Davis wants us all to go out and buy the book.

    Presumably a review should provide some insight as to 1) why a book should be read; 2) why a book shouldn’t be read; and 3) how one might possibly approach the book in terms of understanding central themes, tropes, language concerns, historical context, etc. The Davis review essentially neglects all these things.

  3. F. Huxley Bainbridge Says:

    Yesterday I went out and bought Goodman’s book of poems. I had returned a cookbook that had been sitting around unused, pretending it was a gift, and they gave me store credit. It was dastardly, but it allowed me to buy a random book of poems from someone I hadn’t heard of before.

    I read W.S. Merwin’s introduction to the book at a coffeehouse while waiting for the people behind the counter to make my sandwich. It seemed to say nothing except that the poems were light and funny, employed satire without the spirit of criticism or castigation that usually underlies the device, and that Merwin thought they were cute. He also threw them into a tradition that included Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery.

    Then last night, because I couldn’t sleep, I read the whole thing, cover to cover.

    Then this afternoon, because I still couldn’t sleep, I read the review. The timing was excellent.

    I loved the Einstein/Napolean poem. I loved some of the nearly one-liners, like “Ambition.” Most of the poems, though, with their pop culture juxtapositions and neohistoricisms, have the same blank wit and lack of emotional depth that I usually attribute to Mark Leyner.

    I have to say that I am surprised that Jordan Davis gave this book such a glossing of a review, though, knowing the author, it may have been an effort to protect him from a more in-depth criticism of the book as whole.

    Of course, I’m sure I’m coming off here like that guy that doesn’t want anyone to have any fun, but if I had written that book of poems, I would read them at birthday parties and events for MFA students, sort of like a more public version of telling a few dirty jokes. I’m just shocked that a book of cute, jokey poems first wins the Yale Younger Poets series and then gets a nice review from a very respectable reviewer. Maybe poets in general need to lighten up and write more humorous work. Maybe we should look at our mission purely in terms of entertainment. But I think there’s something missing from that. Poets delight their audiences with more than just laughs. There are possibilities for the challenging and humorous and poignant to be brought together under one roof. Look at John Ashbery or Ben Marcus or a host of others. This work is humorous, but rarely poignant or challenging. And the review never even looks at the quality of the work, its themes, or, well, anything else.

    FHB

  4. A Spendthrifty Reader Says:

    To F. H. Bainbridge–

    It’s not generally advisable to use a book of poetry as a substitute for a cookbook, or to buy “a random book of poems” so dreadfully impulsively. If you are willing to subscribe to the idea that the Yale Series is an arbiter of taste, or has credibility, then you should also be willing to put in the effort necessary to find the depth in the pages of your purchase. Strangely enough, you seem upset that Jordan Davis’s review didn’t help you find the said depth. Just as a book of poems is no replacement for a cookbook, a review is no replacement for thought. Back to the grindstone with you! Read the book again, perhaps when you’re not so tired. You might find it more… dare I say?…appetizing.

  5. hunger a Says:

    Who could have any appetite for words after reading that nauseating review of a flavourless work?

    Perhaps if we could find the food we were looking for?

  6. anon Says:

    It’s fine to say that you know the writer, so that everyone can read the review and take your comments for what they are worth. If the review is interesting and perceptive, no one will care that you went to grad school with this person, or for that matter, what guidelines you typically do or do not follow (the presumption that we care is in and of itself kind of amazing). But why say that you knew this person way back when, and then go on to spend most of the review not-so-cleverly weaving in cutesy personal knowledge and anecdotes (who cares what this poet used to do, where he studied, and with whom?), instead of actually talking about the poems. One is struck by the feeling that you either don’t have much to say about the poems, don’t like them much, or were too lazy to actually get into them deeply and write about them, preferring instead to spend your time getting all meta in the review about how you know that we know that you know this person. The tedium. Please do us and the author a favor and write your way out of yourself and into the poems next time.

  7. Dan Tessitore Says:

    I didn’t pick up Famous Americans until this year, having long ago stopped paying attention to the Yale Series. I enjoyed the book thoroughly, all the more for how different it is from most YYP books. Poems like “Who Would Win?” and “Screenplays” are truly hilarious.

    There is not, however, a great deal to say about the book, much of which is the literary equivalent of erasing the irises from a magazine photo of Robert Lowell and pencilling in crossed eyes.

    Which is fine.

    DT

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