Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York, NY: New Directions Publishing, Inc., 1995.

Williams' long poem contains five books, each one subdivided into sections. The initial book appeared in 1946 and the final book came out in 1958. The collection as a whole focuses on the city of Paterson, NJ, but as Williams' notes in the introduction, more than just a chronicling of the city itself, the poem attempts to generate a “resemblance between the mind of modern man and a city” using “a language we can understand,” one that is both “recognizable” and a “symbol of communication” (xiii). Yet as the poet himself mentions, such a language is not a given, but a process; the poem is “the search of the poet for his language” (xiv). Throughout the course of the collection, and thus his “search,” Williams employs many techniques in which he harnesses a language particular to himself and his subject matter. One of the most evident features of Paterson is the inclusion of both poetry and prose. For example, in section one of book one, Williams writes four to seven stanzas of poetic material, then incorporates several paragraphs of prose that concerns historical accounts and events related to Paterson and the Passaic Falls. At other times, he excerpts letters he received from family, friends, and admirers, and in an even more radical departure from normative poetic forms, includes lists such as one that documents the composition of substratum between sixty-five and two thousand one hundred feet for a well dug in Paterson. The poet, as well, breaks lines on weak words, such as articles and prepositions. By doing so, the cadence of the lines alters drastically and produces a unique rhythm not found in poets of his day. Type-setting also plays an important roll in the visual presentation of the material; specifically, in the third section of book three Williams aligns the text in an angular fashion so the words do not run in a horizontal or parallel manner with the page's margins. Likewise, most (but not all) of the prose portions uses a smaller font than the poetry portions, and thus offers the reader a visual rupture within the text, corresponding to the rupturing of genres. Finally, the idiom of the collection grounds itself in the plain-speech of the times. But more than temporally contingent, the language is geographically and culturally contingent as well; or, as the author writes: “We poets talk in a language which is not English. It is the American idiom” (222). Of course, the poet also complicates the notion of plain-speech poetry, in that, although “anything is good material for poetry” (222), the language itself must be “charged with emotion. It's words rhythmically organized” (221).

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