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Although primarily a book-length poem, the work also incorporates prose passages from historical documents, newspaper accounts, geological surveys, literary texts, and personal letters.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 small eastern town meant to mirror American society. The falls above the town suggest both the possibility of good and healthy life and the correlative health of native speech. True to both history and myth, however, the river below the falls becomes polluted by industry, and the people’s language and the people themselves take on a parallel dirtiness, loss of purpose, and inability to communicate. The process of decay, however, is not irreversible, as Williams indicates late in Book IV of the poem, when he insists that the sea (into which the river issues) is not humankind’s true home.
Book I, “The Delineaments of the Giants,” mythologizes the early history of Paterson in an effort to define the “elemental character of the place” and introduces the city (a masculine force), the landscape (a feminine principle), and the vital, unifying river. In this book, the city is linked with the as-yet-undiscovered identity of the poet. The river, which “comes pouring in above the city,” is the stream of history and of life as well as the stream of language from which the poet must derive his speech:
(What common language to unravel? . ....
(The entire section is 1,184 words.)