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.)