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 PATERSON includes, collage-style, chunks of prose from newspapers, magazines, historical documents, with subjects ranging from the Founding Fathers to African burial rituals.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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