Study Guide

Paterson

by William Carlos Williams

Paterson Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Paterson is a long poem originally in four parts, or books, published separately in 1946, 1948, 1949, and 1951, although sections of them had existed in various forms in earlier works. Williams added a fifth part in 1958, and fragments of the incomplete Book VI were published posthumously (1963) as an appendix to the collection of the first five parts. According to most critics, Paterson is one of Williams’s greatest works and one of the finest long poems written by an American.

Like most long modern poems that abandon traditional narrative forms, Paterson is not easy to follow. One must first understand its basic and arbitrary symbols. The protagonist, Paterson, is a city, man, doctor, and poet. The land (sometimes personified as a woman) is not only that waiting to be civilized but also the poet’s raw material. The river is both language and the natural movement of historical life. Thus, before the poem begins, the author’s note declares, “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—if imaginatively conceived—any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.”

Although primarily a book-length poem, the work also incorporates prose passages from historical documents, newspaper accounts, geological surveys, literary texts, and personal letters. As subject, Williams uses the city of Paterson on the Passaic River near his hometown of Rutherford, New Jersey, so as to bring forth the universal from a local setting. The poem presents local history and the natural scene (particularly Passaic Falls and Garrett Mountain) as well as the consciousness of a gigantic, mythic man (Paterson) and of the author—poet and doctor.

Paterson’s struggle to interpret the language of the falls, his search for an expressive American language, is the major motif of the poem. Paterson swarms with characters, incidents, impressions, and dramatic passages, bound together by the work’s wide-ranging introspective and associative process and its quest: “Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?” Williams dissociated and consciously recombined these narrative, descriptive, and lyric elements in the manner of a montage or cubist painting. The jagged, juxtaposed collage effects are one way Williams hopes to break through contaminated words to reality.

Although there are echoes of both Pound and Eliot, the poem’s basic technique is that of Irish novelist James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939). Williams took certain historical places and events (the town of Paterson, the Passaic River, and events recorded in local histories and newspapers) and forged them into a myth. The poem’s general theme is the decay of life in a...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)

Paterson Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A hasty reading of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson may leave the reader at the end of the poem with a feeling not unlike that of a rural person on his or her first trip to a big city: There are so many different things to look at, in so many different shapes and sizes, and all the people seem to be rushing about so haphazardly that the uninitiated wind up their days bemused but happy. Such a reaction to Paterson is part of Williams’s purpose. The poem interweaves the story of a city with the story of a man so that the two become interchangeable, and the jumbled kaleidoscope of city life turns and glitters like the conflicting ideas, dreams, loves, and hates that assail the minds of twentieth century human beings.

Looked at more closely, the poem can be seen to take on shape, like a city coming out from under a rolling fog or a person walking out of the shadows of trees in a park. Williams unifies his poem by letting the river that flows through the city serve as a symbol of life, both that of the city and that of the man. Life equated to a river flowing somewhere safe to sea is an image as old as poetry itself, but the ways in which Williams uses this image are so fresh and individual in style and presentation that it seems as if he had discovered the idea.

The poem is divided into four books, which correspond to four parts of the river: the portion above the falls; the falls themselves; the river below the falls; and the river’s exit into the sea. Williams opens the first book, “The Delineaments of the Giants,” with these lines:

Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Fallsits spent waters forming the outline of his back. Helies on his right side, head near the thunderof the water filling his dreams!

Having presented the blended image of city and man, the poet goes on to present symbols for women—a flower, a cliff, the falls—and to introduce one of the main concerns of Paterson: the search for a language by which human beings may “redeem” the tragedies of life. To counterbalance this somewhat abstract and nebulous idea, Williams intersperses his poem with many concrete passages, some in prose, which serve as an entrancing documentation of the backgrounds of the city and the man. In book 1, for instance, historical notes and newspaper clippings tell us of the finding of pearls in mussels taken from Notch Brook, near the city; of General Washington’s encounter with “a monster in human form”; of the accidental drowning of a Mrs. Cumming at the falls; of the death there of a stuntman named Sam Patch; and of a great catch of eels made by the local people when a lake was...

(The entire section is 1149 words.)