Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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Although primarily a book-length poem, the work also incorporates prose passages from historical documents, newspaper accounts, geological surveys, literary texts, and personal letters.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...
(The entire section is 1184 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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 entire section is 1149 words.)