Nelson, Raymond, Kenneth Patchen and American Mysticism.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984. Smith, Larry R. Kenneth Patchen. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
PATERSON WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS (1946, 1948, 1949, 1951,1958, 1963) The five books which make up Paterson were originally published separately in sequence by New Directions in New York, and William Carlos Williams had begun work on a sixth at the time of his death in 1963. The poem was published in a single volume in 1963, including the brief fragments of book 6 found among Williams's papers. Because of its epic scope, Paterson is grouped among American long such poems as Hart cranes THE BRIDGE, T. S. ELIOTs FOUR QUARTETS and THE
waste land, Ezra pounds the cantos, Louis zukovskys "a," and Charles olsons the maximus poems (see long
AND SERIAL POETRY).
Williams, the most celebrated practitioner of ima-gism (see imagist school), explained his plan and premise for Paterson in the poem's "Authors Note," which appeared with book 1 in 1946; he envisioned "a long poem in four parts—that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody" (n.p.). Book 1 brings together Paterson the man and Paterson the city in its opening lines: "Pater-son lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls / its spent waters forming the outline of his back," thus personifying the city and sexualizing the river and its falls. Williams subsequently interspersed prose excerpts from personal letters, newspapers, and local histories with his lines of verse. The complete work has been described by Gilbert Sorrentino as "a masterwork of High modernism, an open collage of sustained and exquisite lyrics, fragmented narratives, recollected, revived, and revised history, and a bravura display of bricolage" (261). From the start, fellow poets and critics watched closely and held widely divergent opinions of Williams's "masterwork." Richard eberhart welcomed the second installment as "even more exciting than the first," because "the sense of energy, movement and reality is everywhere present" ("Energy" 4), and
Robert lowell connected the book to the first great icon of American poetry when he declared it to be "Whitman's America, grown pathetic and tragic, brutalized by inequality, disorganized by industrial chaos, and faced with annihilation" (693).
As the first four parts of the sequence progress, earth, air, fire, and water maintain symbolic value at the same time as sets of binaries (including man/woman, city/wilderness, and marriage/divorce) emerge to expand the symbolic framework of the poem. The irony of Paterson is that Williams, who always insisted on common speech by and for ordinary people, would write a book so complicated that it requires interpretation by specialists (Eberhart "Image" 5). Hayden car-ruth was bothered that even "at the eighth reading some details of structure and aspects of symbol remain unclear" (331); while a particular symbol appears consistently, its use and meaning are inconsistent (Spears 40). One critic describes book 3 as "some magnificent passages, some silly passages, and a great mass of undigested material" (Spears 42), and he concludes that the third installment is "not only about the failure of language; it is a failure of language" (43). Books 4 and 5, published later, also received mixed reviews.
Carruth's mixed feelings about Williams's epic continued with the publication of Book Four, the last line of which reads "the end" because it was intended to be the final segment. While Carruth believed it to be a major moment in American poetry and admired the whole as an "often superlatively good, lyrical meditation," he nevertheless considered Book Four as "less satisfactory" and "less well integrated" than its predecessors (156). John ciardi and Thom gunn agree that the subject and meaning of Book Five are never clear, but while Ciardi confesses to being occasionally "baffled," he insists there still is "richness" and "master[y]" in the book (39); Gunn also concedes Williams's "purity of language," but in the end he believes that "whole sequences of Paterson Book Five could be rearranged and still mean about as much and as little as they do now" (298). Finally, the reception of the posthumous 1963 edition is harshest of all, perhaps because the venerable Dr. Williams no longer could be touched by the criticism; Christopher Ricks calls it "boring" and an "almost total failure" citing "a com plete absence of rhythm, an arbitrariness of line-length, a flatness of diction, a poverty of metaphor" and "appallingly bad prose" (449).
It is impossible to know how to reconcile dismissals such as these with the claim that the book is what another reviewer called a "modern classic," "disarm-ingly simple in its sharp clarity and intense sincerity of expression" (Wills 415). The "sharp clarity" is found when "the man broke his wife's / cancerous jaw," the "sincerity of expression" heard when "Love is a kitten, a pleasant / thing, a purr."
After taking more than a decade of critical coverage into account, spanning the publication history of the book in its parts, what emerges from among these voices is a consensus that while the book's structure and design are so problematic as potentially to defeat its premise, Williams's lyrical power is unquestionable and his control of the image remains unmatched. This lyricism is evident in Paterson when Williams likens a man's thoughts to boughs "from whose leaves streaming with rain / his mind drinks of desire," and it is the grace by which the poem might be redeemed.
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