J. B. GOODENOUGH, POET OF RURAL AMERICA: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
J. B. GOODENOUGH, POET OF RURAL AMERICA:
A SHORT BIOGRAPHY
AN ANNE MINIVER BUTTERFLY TECHNOLOGIUM
JUDITH RIPLEY GOODENOUGH (October 25,1942-September 18, 1990) writing as J. B. Goodenough was a poet who published three books and more than seven hundred poems in three hundred magazines. She also wrote folk music, words and melodies, and her compositions were sung and recorded in Ireland and the United States by folksingers Gordon Bok, Tommy Makem, Liam Clancy, the Clancy Brothers, and Ann Mayo Muir.
She was born Judith Ripley Beach on October 25, 1942 in Berea, Kentucky to Eva (Ripley) and Robert Fullerton Beach, Supervisor of Reserves at the library of Berea College. As a onscientious objector during the Second World War he later worked for the American Friends Service Committee. In 1946 he became Librarian of Garrett Biblical Institute, Evanston, Illinois and in 1951 Librarian of Union Theological Seminary, New York City. As a result his daughter Judy grew up in that city and was educated at its exclusive Birch Wathen School, now the Birch Wathen Lenox School.
Her teachers found her to be “bright, intellectual, and extraordinarily talented.” As a student she enjoyed painting, playing the piano, dancing, writing poetry and during her senior year served as editor of the school’s literary publication Birch Leaves. The class yearbook described her poems as “a perfect balance of interesting and delicate rhythm and artfully chosen words, which convey subtle meanings.” She graduated in June 1960 and enrolled that September at Radcliffe College, then the coordinate women’s College of Harvard University.
At Harvard she majored in English and studied poetry with Mark Van Doren and Robert Lowell. During her freshman year she sang in the chorus, enjoyed as she called it the “folk thrust” of Cambridge in the 1960s, and later worked on “yearbook publications.” In June 1964 Harvard and Radcliffe jointly awarded her a B.A. cum laude. She spent the next year in New York City as a secretary for Mrs. Henry Parish II’s “posh” interior decorating firm. By 1965 she was back in Cambridge working at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.
It was at Harvard that she met her husband, John Byer Goodenough, who was studying for his Ph.D. in mathematics while also working with the Decision Sciences Laboratory, in nearby Bedford. They were married on the afternoon of April 23, 1966 at the Chapel of the Union Theological Seminary and had two children: Anne (September 2, 1969) and Elizabeth (December 3, 1973).
During the next fifteen years she took care of her family. As she put it in her 10th Radcliffe Class report, her “present” career was being a “housewife” and “watching my daughters and roses grow.” The roses referred to her passion for flower gardening. The family’s first home was in the Boston suburb of Westford, which she called “real country” with “horse and farms all around” and in 1977 they relocated to another country suburb Carlisle. That community she came to love deeply.
She did continue writing some poetry during these years but also began to do landscapes in acrylics and discovered to her surprise that she had a talent for it. Indeed in time she sold almost one hundred works and when her three collections of poetry were published she illustrated the covers. While her paintings are sophisticated she never really developed beyond a primitive understanding of colors and method.
By 1978 Goodenough felt her daughters were old enough so that she could begin “writing again, after a silence of fifteen years.” She now wrote as J. B. Goodenough for as she told her friend the Maine folksinger Gordon Bok she found that “her work was more acceptable to editors by just using her initials.” She said about writing poetry that “the words go where they will, the poem writes itself, and there are forces at work that aren’t ours to deal with” and in a humorous verse she described the process: “And I hit everything within/reach,” said Tweedledum/”whether I see it or not!”/Said the Duchess, “I make/a present of everything/I’ve said as yet”/Both of which statements,/Said Judy, are what/writing poetry is all about.
Before long her poems had been accepted by over one hundred and fifty literary magazine and several had been included in poetry anthologies. Many of these she included in her first book Dower Land that was published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Series (XV) in 1984. About this collection the poet Denise Levertov said: “The texture of Judith Goodenough’s language is gritty, stony, salty; there’s a direct path between the New England fields, weather, persons, interiors and dreams she writes about and the diction in which she evokes them. She has the gift of seeing with the ears, hearing with the eyes.”
After she returned in a serious way to poetry she also started to write folk songs, both lyrics and melodies, many of which are related to the sea and Ireland. Their roots arose from her exposure with the musical tradition of the 1960s especially the folk culture associated with Harvard Square at that time. These compositions, she explained, are not poems “set to music, that is a different discipline," but are rather songs “to be sung."
When she sent some to the Maine folksinger Gordon Bok, he liked them and over the years they “traded poems, songs and inspiration.” He introduced her work to other popular folksingers particularly Anne Mayo Muir, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. About her Makem declared, she “had a way with words and a surprising way of looking at things that is denied to most of us mere mortals." And Bok said about his friend, “No one could snap my literary garters like she could.” “Apples in the Basket” and “Turning of the Year” are among her best known and most frequently recorded compositions.
Gordon Bok and Judy Goodenough
Her second poetry collection, Milking in November, was published by St. Andrews Press in 1990. It continued her chosen poetry focus, best described as poems about “rural America.” They are rooted in the stark, often grim, year-round landscapes and the traditional country living of New England. The individuals speaking in each poem, as Pat Hutchings writing in CALYX noted, speak with the “salty, reticent, sometimes dry, humorous wisdom of understatement.” Each poem contains a hard but honest insight about human nature.
Judy Goodenough was a shy, quiet, thoughtful, and “muddy-booted Yankee by conviction.” She enjoyed making her own clothes, lots of reading, quilting, making miniatures “goodies” such as apples, peas, carrots, peppers to fill up baskets and boxes which she sold at crafts shows, and unusual pets one of which was Finnegan, eventually a ninety-pound mini pig, that she took on a leash for walks about her neighborhood.
Judy and Finnegan, Her Pig
For years her view of religion was affected negatively as a result of Paul Tillich’s private life while he taught at Union Theological Seminary and further by the kind of ”parties” enjoyed by some of its staff and faculty. It was not until the 1970s when she began a relationship with the First Religious Society of Carlisle, a Unitarian Universalist congregation, that she found a ”home” for her religious values. She even worked for several years as the church’s part-time secretary and in 1987 she arranged for her friend Gordon Bok to give a benefit concert at the church.
Judy Goodenough died at home on September 18, 1990. At her request her memorial service was held at the First Religious Society in Carlisle. It was conducted by the Rev. Dr. Eugene Widrick and was made from music and readings she had selected. It included a letter to her family and friends gathered in the sanctuary she felt was her home that said in part: “Touch each other and be gentle to each other and find you way back again into the winds and currents of your separate lives. Some part of me goes with you, among you, a bit of a wind or a touch of a shadow or something a bird might have said.” In the nearby Green Cemetery, on her slate monument that is edged by a narrow band of flowers, the kind of grave marker that the strong country women she wrote about would have had, one reads from her poem "Passages": "At the pasture pond/ A flock of days/ Rises and is gone."
Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School, has in its Manuscript Collection a Judith Goodenough Folder, bMS 900/18(2a)
For details of her life see the Birch Wathren School Yearbook for 1960, the Radcliffe College Yearbook for 1964, and the Radcliffe Class of 1964 reports for 1969, 1974, 1979, 1984 and 1989. See also “J.D. Goodenough Becomes Fiancé of Judith Beach,” New York Times, January 30, 1966; J. B. Goodenough, “Celebrity Pig in Town Wallows in Limelight,” Boston Globe, August 20, 1982 and Carlisle Mosquito, September 10,1982, 6; “Gordon Bok Comes to Carlisle, ”Carlisle Mosquito, January 16, 1987, 1; Judy Goodenough, “Judy’s Message,” Neighbours & Fellow Cretures, First religious Society Newsletter, October 9, 1990.
For her publications see Alan Seaburg, “J. B. Goodenough, Poet of Rural America: A Bibliography,” An Anne Miniver Butterfly Technologium Publication, 2010 and Eugene Widrick, “No Wheelbarrows,” To the Western Ocean The Anne Miniver Reader 2008 (Cambridge, 2008) 73-6.
For criticism of her poetry see William Zander, “Bury the Blackbird Here,” The Literary Review 35 (Spring, 1992) 434; Paul Ruffin, The Texas Review; Joseph Somoza, Puerto del Sol; Anne Carroll Fowler, The Radcliffe Quarterly; James Bertolino, Bellingham Review; and Pat Hutchings, CALYX Journal of Art and Literature by Women.
For her obituary see” Judith Beach Goodenough,” Harvard-Radcliffe Class of 1964 Website; “Judith B. Goodenough, Poet, lyricist, former residence of Carlisle,” Carlisle Mosquito, September 28, 1990, 3; and “Judith Goodenough,” The Pittsburg Press, September 19, 1990 and Orlando Sentinel, September 21, 1990.
Illustration design by Thomas Dahill.
This book is not under copyright and can be freely copied – especially by those interested in Judy Goodenough’s poetry. Anne Miniver Press.