(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Although primarily a book-length poem, the work also incorporates prose passages from historical documents, newspaper accounts, geological surveys, literary texts, and personal letters.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.)