(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

According to the terms of the debate still furiously raging on campuses across the country, William Carlos Williams is firmly enshrined in the canon (file under “Modernism”). Fine. Now perform this simple experiment. Ask the next one hundred English majors you meet if they’ve read PATERSON (and throw in American Studies majors for good measure). Maybe one or two will say yes, maybe none at all.

This revised edition of PATERSON, then, isn’t simply an item for the scholar’s shelf: It’s a book waiting for readers. Yes, poets from two generations have wrestled with it; yes, professors have published books and articles on it; still, it awaits discovery.

Like Ezra Pound’s CANTOS, Louis Zukofsky’s A, and Charles Olson’s MAXIMUS POEMS, PATERSON is a long poem in which the life of the author and the life of our times are intricately interwoven. It is a “poem containing history,” centering on Paterson, New Jersey: a defiantly American, defiantly “unpoetic” subject. And it’s a poem that—like Pound’s, Zukofsky’s, and Olson’s—makes the poet’s quest for a usable form part of the unfolding narrative. PATERSON includes, collage-style, chunks of prose from newspapers, magazines, historical documents, with subjects ranging from the Founding Fathers to African burial rituals.

In 1957, Mike Wallace conducted an interview with Williams for the NEW YORK POST. Wallace relentlessly pressed the attack (“Well—is...

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Originally conceived in four parts, William Carlos Williams’ longest poem was left unfinished at the time of the poet’s death in 1963. Williams had by then realized that a poem that sought to include the poet’s entire world was ultimately unfinishable. The first section was published in 1946, the fifth in 1958. Notes for a sixth section were found after Williams’ death.

The poem’s main character, Dr. P., is both a poet and a physician, as was Williams himself. His journeys through the city of Paterson take him to a park, to a library, and to the bedside of his patients. Minor characters abound. A brutalized black girl, a woman poet called “Cress,” and the poet Allen Ginsberg (called “A. G.”) all figure prominently in P.’s world.

As important as any human character in the poem is Paterson itself: Williams quotes liberally from documentary sources, re-creating imaginatively the history and legendry of the city. Also central are the Passaic River and the Falls, which take on several symbolic and allegorical meanings in the poem.

Like Eliot’s THE WASTE LAND and Ezra Pound’s CANTOS (both of which are alluded to in PATERSON), the poem is a collage made up of quotations from other sources and the poet’s own lyric musings. Like many of Williams’ shorter works, it is characterized by innovative prosody and typography. PATERSON, along with the poems mentioned above and Hart Crane’s THE BRIDGE, is one of the...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Paterson. City in northeastern New Jersey set amid factories, garbage dumps, pollution, and industrial blight, with the much larger cities of New York City and Newark on the horizon. Paterson is perched on the edge of the Passaic River and roaring waterfalls that attracted industry as far back as the time of Alexander Hamilton. The city itself is the poem’s main character: a living being, chaotic and shifting through time and differing perceptions, full of energy, beauty, ugliness, cruelty, and crass moneygrubbing.

Sometimes, William Carlos Williams is exhilarated by the masses of workers, immigrants, and ordinary men and women in Paterson; at other times, he is angry at their meanness, immorality, and pettiness, preferring the dogs in the park. Paterson is also the man/poet/doctor who becomes the consciousness and the voice of the city. The poem incorporates bits of conversation on the street, letters, news clippings, historical documents, and geological, economic, and industrial records.

*Passaic River

*Passaic River. New Jersey river that flows about ninety miles to the sea, passing through Paterson and entering the Atlantic Ocean at Newark. In the poem the river, representing life, time, and language, has been polluted and despoiled by human failure, greed, cruelty, and the failure to communicate. In the eighteenth century, however, the river is the place where Alexander Hamilton saw a future for the city and the place where early industrial barons grew rich off cotton and silk mills. As the river pours over its falls, it can cleanse itself; however, humans, who have no such redeeming language, are condemned to an inarticulate and fragmentary consciousness.

*Great Falls

*Great Falls. Seventy-four-foot drop in the Passaic River at Paterson, where the river thunders over a rocky...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Duffey, Bernard. A Poetry of Presence: The Writing of William Carlos Williams. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986. Considers Williams’ epic as a lyrical dramatization of his descent into the ambiguities of his concept of himself as an American poet. Williams, who was a doctor, wanted to reenact the facts of human misery in a new and healing speech.

Mariani, Paul L. “Putting Paterson on the Map: 1946-1961.” In William Carlos Williams: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1975. Chronicles the struggle of critics and reviewers, including many notable poets, to come to grips with the meaning and importance of a strangely structured but major new work.

Markos, Donald W. Ideas in Things: The Poems of William Carlos Williams. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. Interprets Paterson in the context of Williams’ idealist belief in beauty as the emanation of a universal, ideal reality through the particular world of things. This Platonism links him to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jonathan Edwards in the American tradition of individual perception and creative imagination.

Sankey, Benjamin. A Companion to William Carlos Williams’s “Paterson.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. Interpretive guide to the text, with pertinent information and comments by Williams. An introductory chapter presents Williams’ philosophy, design, and methodology.

Schmidt, Peter. William Carlos Williams, the Arts, and Literary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. The relationship of Williams’ poetry to precisionist, cubist, and Dadaist aesthetics and to the literary tradition that preceded modernism. Williams used a variety of approaches to collage, while both critiquing and renewing epic form.