Friday, November 21, 2008
by William Carlos Williams
Revised Edition Prepared by Christopher MacGowan
Before I begin my discussion of “Paterson,” William Carlos Williams’ great long poem of place and position, excuse me a few words about my extended absence from ‘For The Birds.’ My computer has been in the Apple repair shop for the past two weeks and I only just picked it up from the Apple Store in downtown Manhattan a few days ago. It appeared at the time as if my computer might have a virus threatening to wipe out my hard drive. I hadn’t backed up any of my files, i.e. my poetry, so I was panicking over the thought of losing years and years of writing. A word of advice for any young writers out there – back up your material! Don’t be sorry! Thankfully, Apple was able to repair my computer, with both my hard drive and my poetry intact. That, in conjunction with some personal issues, has kept me away from the blog and from a self-enforced schedule of reading. Despite whatever personal matters I was dealing with, I still managed to read William Carlos William’s fantastic book, “Paterson.” I am now glad to say I am back on schedule! Enough personal talk, let’s move onto the poem!
Regular readers to ‘For the Birds’ (hello?) may recall a July post concerning Charles Olson’s life-poem, “The Maximus Poems.” It is a thorny work of masculine verve, typographical innovation and bold vision. Focusing on his home of Gloucester, Olson confronts history and its ramifications within the parameter of textuality- the page and its own set of implications. William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson” is also a bold gesture of confrontation – an intersection of a poet’s identity with the polyphony of history. The poem itself serves as a conduit not for the poet, be it Williams Carlos Williams or Charles Olson, or even some romantic notion of the Poet. Both of these great poems seek an interactive and investigative identity – the poet, yes, but one whose boundaries shift. Charles Olson both contains himself and moves beyond himself through the figure of Maximus, while William Carlos Williams does so with the poet Paterson. I am also reminded of John Berryman’s construction of his almost Freudian-double, Henry. In all three avatars, despite each poet’s difference of approach, we observe a perpetual shift in biographical correlation and resonance. There is a swift movement from and in identity within each avatar. Remember the vast waterfall overlooking the city of Paterson, which Williams Carlos Williams describes as it “…falls unseen/ tumbles and rights itself/ and refalls – and does not cease, falling/ and refalling with roar, a reverberation/ not of the falls but of its rumor/ unabated…” Keep this flow in mind, both as an intransience and a stability that goes back in the Western tradition at least as far as Heraclitus’ observations of a running stream.
And how does this relate to identity? The poet’s identity, identity as such, is trapped within the flow of history, but through an expansive use of collage and reoccurrence, Williams opens this form. For instance, the doctor’s long poem, begun when he was 60, was originally envisioned as four books, but a fifth followed seven years after the so-called conclusion, and the poet was at work on a sixth when he passed away. Williams’ concern for openness is indicated in a comment made when he was 75. In reference to “Paterson, Book Five,” Williams writes, “…there can be no end to such a story I have envisioned with the terms which I had lain down for myself.” Despite Williams’ attempt to close this great poem of history, it refuses closure. How do you close a poem of a life while still alive? Note the image in “Paterson, Book Five,” of “…a sphere, a snake with its tail in/ its mouth/ [that] rolls backward into the past…” “Paterson” is William Carlos Williams’ declaration of life, his, and like any life, it does not end in closure, but in an incompletion. Is there ever any closure to life, other than an abrupt interruption of annihilation?
Doctor Williams’ poem rings out with clarity of voice, or more correctly, voicing, as the reader confronts “…-the voice!/ -the voice rises, neglected/ (with its new) the unfaltering/ language…” The voicing of language, and its meaning apart from the language’s specific meaning are concerns of both “Paterson” and “The Maximus Poems,” though the differences in the poets is at least as fascinating as their similarities. (Bear in mind that the differences in Olson and Williams that I don’t touch on in this blog post on account of space are just as fascinating as these mentioned affinities.) Both works investigate time and place, as well as these factors’ pull upon identity. Place is positioned as the hinge of time, for Olson this place is Gloucester, and for William Carlos Williams, it is Paterson, New Jersey. The poem creates a complication of a voided or abstract space. “Paterson” generates a mind-space of a location and its history, but itself lacks any distinct physicality. At the same time, language is a physicality of itself.
While discussing “The Maximus Poems,” I wrote that it “…does not present the
polished product of thought, but an act of thinking.” This reminds me now of Robert Duncan or the work of Lyn Hejinian as well. “Paterson” is also a poem of “verb-ing.” By that, I mean we are reading a poem in the act of a verb, of a doing, of a verbalization, and not of a noun. Yes, the poem returns again and again to a recitation of “Beautiful thing,” but I would argue Williams is more invested in the evocation, of the voicing of the “thing” other than the solidifying of the thing here in the poem. Then again, I am not really addressing Williams through Ezra Pounds’ Imagist criticism on “thingness” or on the Objectivists’ similar concerns. An interesting exchange is included early on in Paterson between Pound and Williams. Pound writes, “Your interest is in the bloody loam but what/ I’m after is the finished product.” The currently extant edition of “Paterson” is the 1992 Revised Edition prepared by Christopher MacGowan. Through MacGowan’s exhaustive and illuminating annotations, we begin to realize that there is no “definitive” “Paterson;” that even this edition includes a series of choices, none of them authoritative.
There is a Metropolitan sprawl to “Paterson”s structure, as Williams inserts correspondences, historical records and news articles into the poem itself. In “Paterson, Book Four,” Williams includes a parenthetical phrase, “(What I miss, said your mother, is the poetry, the pure poem/ of the first parts . )” Bemusedly, Williams comments on the harshness of his textual juxtapositions, as he alternates from his smooth plain speak to a polyphonic collision of marginal voice. In an interview included within the same section of the poem, Williams discusses poetry as such, writing, “There is a difference of poetry and sense.” He stresses the importance of “…the shape of the words.” The “senselessness” which has troubled some critics of the latter books of “Paterson” is only apparent on an incremental level – a perspective of the poem’s totality shows a "rightness" to the whole.
It is important, perhaps, to remember that a good portion of “Paterson” is composed of letters. Many of these are letters with his peers, such as the aforementioned Pound, as well as with young poets like Gilbert Sorrentino and Allen Ginsberg, the later poet himself eventually assuming the generous mentorship Williams is renowned for extending his own time. In light of this reliance on correspondence, discourse assumes prevalence over Pound’s “finished product.” Regular readers to this blog may notice the personal importance, in my writings on writing, on discourse over product or indeed any qualitative criticism. In “Paterson, Book Two” we see a foreshadowing, or an echo, of the end of the first four books. We see “…-that/ tied man, that cold blooded/ murderer . April! in the distance/ being hanged….One kills/ for money but doesn’t always get it.” This image reappears at the end of “Paterson, Book Four,” a recounting of John Johnson’s slaying of an elderly couple and his subsequent hanging. This closure, placed as such by the author, is ultimately exploded, as the poem pushes further. There is a place, of course, within the poem for such wonderful artifice and craft, but that’s not all there is. Indeterminacy and whim, time and its changes, also figure!
Edward Dahlberg, whose correspondences to Williams are included in the text of the poem, voices his criticism of “Paterson” itself in MacGowan’s annotations. Dahlberg writes, “I think his “Paterson”…is a fraud. The man is very spongy, and imagines by repeating the word rock about a hundred and thirty-five times that he can become hard or give the effect of having ophidian intellect.” What I think might be bothering Dahlberg is Williams’ apparently “arbitrary” use of what could be called hinge-words, or foci. Ron Silliman uses similar techniques in “The Age of Huts”- there are certain words, sentences, even themes that reoccur in protean diversity to both indicate cohesion and dissimilitude. Rocks, flowers and gulls reoccur in “Paterson” beyond the conventional ken of literary reoccurrence. Instead, one is reminded of the spume, the shifting waters of the Passaic River – a life-giving water that is also terrifying in the death it promises, in the wealth of meaning it offers, as well as its shifting indeterminacy. But these hinge-words do not surface arbitrarily! Or more exactly, their seemingly arbitrary nature may be exactly the point.
These are just my small thoughts on William Carlos Williams’ great poem. My apologies to the doctor for my misunderstandings! But then again, isn’t that part of the fun, too?