Paterson and Williams later poetry

While Williams continued to write lyric poetry throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, his attention turned increasingly to a project that would be his answer to Eliot's Waste Land and Pound's Cantos. As early as 1926, he had written an eighty-five-line poem called "Paterson," which would be the seed for his attempt at an American epic, Paterson. Paterson was published in five books during the period from 1946 to 1958. Its setting is the New Jersey city from which it takes its title. Unlike Pound, who wanted to write an epic encompassing all of world history, Williams sought in the fairly ordinary town of Paterson "an image large enough to embody the whole knowable world about me." Williams' inspiration for Paterson came both from the geographical features of the city (with its river and waterfall as a central image) and from local histories of the region, some of which he would include directly in the collage-like text of the poem.

Both Pound's Cantos and Crane's The Bridge could serve as partial models for what Williams wanted to achieve in Paterson, but he would differentiate his own epic from both of these works. The Cantos were the "algebraic equivalent" for what he wished to accomplish, but Pound's poem remained "too perversely individual" and too removed from the possibility of "universal understanding." The Bridge, on the other hand, was too much of a "lyric-epic singsong." Williams' epic would be less tied to the forms of traditional lyric, and would move closer to the documentary style of the newspaper, which presented "the precise incentive to epic poetry, the poetry of events." Williams felt he needed to develop a "concise sharpshooting epic style" that would send out "bullets" of information.

Williams' comments about the origins of Paterson - written as a press release for the publication of Book IV in 1951 - are useful in our overall understanding ofthe poem's complex formal, narrative, and thematic structure. Williams claimed that his general theme was to be "the resemblance between the mind of modern man and the city," and that the language of the poem had to "speak for us in a language we can understand." The choice of Paterson as the city was based on several factors: it was a city he knew intimately, having worked there as a doctor; it was a place not too big to be understood in its totality yet varied and distinguished enough to provide thematic interest; it had a history "associated with the beginnings of the United States"; and it had a central geographical feature, the Passaic Falls, which could serve as an symbolic figure for the poem as a whole. As to the form of Paterson: Williams decided on four books which would roughly follow "the course of the river whose life seemed more and more to resemble my own life." The four books would delineate, in chronological and geographical sequence, "the river above the Falls, the catastrophe of the Falls itself, the river below the Falls, and the entrance into the great sea." These four segments would in turn correspond to four movements in the life of a man: "beginning, seeking, achieving, and concluding his life." Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Paterson would be a poem about the search for language, with the noise of the Falls serving as a metaphor for "a language which we were and are seeking."

Opinions about the success of Paterson as a twentieth-century long poem vary greatly: David Perkins is particularly harsh in his assessment of the poem, calling it "a botch."7 Most of the criticisms of the poem have centered on its looseness oforganization, its lack ofa coherent structure, and the absence ofa unifying voice such as is arguably present in The Waste Land, The Four Quartets, and (at least in parts) The Cantos. As Joseph Riddel points out, critics have sought in the poem "an organizing center, a controlling image, [or] a mythic predesign," and they have focused on such imagistic or symbolic centers as the river, the cycle ofseasons, the quadrilateral structure of the first four books, the metaphor of the city, and the trope of marriage and divorce.8 But according to Riddel's reading, the poem does not rely on any such symbolic or organizational center; instead, it is radically decen-tered, designed more on the model of the cubist painting, palimpsest, or helix than on the centralizing model of the traditional poem. Paterson is a poem containing "layers upon layers of interpretations"; it is "an unfolding sequence of words"9 which never achieves thematic, narrative, or formal closure.

Though many of these same qualities can be attributed to The Cantos as well, Williams' stance toward the construction of Paterson was fundamentally different from that of either Pound or Eliot. Where Pound saw the artistic process as a matter of exerting vigorous control over his medium - "yanking and hauling" his materials out of the "indomitable chaos" and into "some sort of order" - Williams described the process of writing his long poem more as one of discovery. He sought to allow the composition to "assume a form" rather than forcibly imposing one. The formal organization of the poem resembles the flow of a river: just as the river moves forward in a direction and at a speed that is variable and subject to changes in the landscape, the poem is subject to the poet's discovery of new materials and new ideas. Such a form cannot be predetermined, and as a result Williams' general plan for what he called "the impossible poem Paterson" underwent numerous modifications on the way to its completion. As James Breslin puts it, the poem's form assumes openness and immediacy as primary values: "Paterson is by no means a finished work . . . instead, [it] is the act of its creation, recording the consciousness of its creator, whose dual fidelity to the world and to the poem constantly forces him to turn back and start all over again."10

This more open conception of Paterson appealed strongly to the generation of younger poets beginning to write in the late 1940s and early 1950s, who saw in the poem a necessary alternative to Pound's Cantos. As Charles Olson put it in a letter to Robert Creeley (1951), Williams' poem "gave us the lead on the local" and made possible "extensions and comprehensions" The Cantos did not. Paterson opened the way for such postmodern epics as Olson's Maximus Poems and Edward Dorn's Gunslinger.

A thorough reading of Paterson would require far more space than we can devote to it here. What I have tried to provide is a general sense ofthe poem which emphasizes Williams' own plan for its composition. The importance the poem held for Williams is indicated by his decision to add another book after the completion of the original four-book project. Paterson V appeared in 1958, when Williams was seventy-five years old. By this time he had suffered a series of strokes, another of which was to follow later in that year. Williams had written some of his most memorable poetry during the past decade, including the long narrative poem "The Desert Music" (1951), the meditative love poem "Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (1953), and shorter lyrics such as "The Ivy Crown" and "The Sparrow."

Most of the lyric poetry Williams published in the 1950s was written in a triadic stanza pattern he called the "variable foot," which he had begun using in the second book of Paterson. In the triadic stanza, each group of three lines moves progressively toward the right margin as it steps down the page; each line is to be given equal weight, despite the difference in the number ofsyllables from one line to another. This form helps contribute to the measured, slow, almost halting, but highly evocative and meditative quality of the later poetry. We see this quality in the following passage from the ending of "Asphodel":

As I think of it now, after a lifetime, it is as if a sweet-scented flower were poised and for me did open.

Asphodel has no odor save to the imagination but it too celebrates the light. It is late but an odor as from our wedding has revived for me and begun again to penetrate into all crevices of my world.

In this moving love poem to his wife Flossie, the back-and-forth movement of the lines is suggestive of the alternation between past memories and the present act of writing the poem. At the same time, the variable line lengths allow Williams to place differing emphases on individual words and phrases while still maintaining an overall sense of formal structure. Within this loose "measure," Williams can choose to devote a line to a single word or an entire phrase. "Asphodel," the flower which serves as the central image of the poem, clearly merits a line to itself, but perhaps more surprising is the placement of a phrase like "it is as if." Lacking any of what are normally considered the most important words in poetry (nouns, pronouns, verbs, or adjectives), the line indicates the importance Williams assigns to the mental process itself, the turning of the mind toward a new idea or metaphor.

Williams uses the flexibility of the form to his advantage, stretching his thought back across the page from the end of one three-line unit to the beginning of the next: "it is as if// a sweet-scented flower / were poised." The circling movement suggested by the use of the triadic feet establishes the thematic and symbolic motion of the poem as a whole, which moves "through the recognition of the fact of death" to "an affirmation of the transcendent power oflove."11 The asphodel itself is the flower of the dead, which in classical mythology covers the Elysian Fields. Since the flower was also familiar to Williams from his childhood in modern-day New Jersey, its use here represents the "confluence of [poetic] tradition with his local world."12 The flower links past and present, and its symbolic resonance moves between death and a rebirth through love and memory. Williams, who resisted overt symbolism throughout most of his career, now allows himself to indulge freely in the process of turning image into symbol: the asphodel is odorless and nearly colorless (signifying Williams' own sense of physical fading), yet this frail flower returns every year "after winter's harshness," and in the poet's imagination it takes on a potent physicality, penetrating the "crevices / of my world." In "Asphodel," the older Williams uses the latent power of the image to construct larger symbolic structures, thus celebrating the endless turning of the mind rather than the more static focus on the visual object.

Chapter 6

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