In the headnote to PATERSON, William Carlos Williams described his view of the function of poetry as a bare-handed answer to Greek and Latin. The deliberate rejection of a received tradition, and reliance on crude native energy of intelligence, are characteristic of a poet who has from the start been aggressively American in his poetic themes and techniques. It is not going too far to state that Williams has in fact defined himself in his poetic identity by a series of rejections: as early as 1910 he had thrown over the sonnet and the iamb as dead molds from an English and not an American tradition, and set out in search of what he would later call the “measure” of the indigenous “American idiom.” Inevitably this search meant the development of new themes and approaches, an intensive reliance on personal sensibility, and the justification of seemingly unpoetic and arbitrary materials—lists of ice-cream prices, the sounds of the sea-elephant and of trees in rain — the whole human barnyard Williams observed daily in his practice as a busy pediatrician in a New Jersey suburb.
A characteristic early poem, “Between Walls,” demonstrates Williams’ relentlessness in the process of taking up slack, of concentrating his poetic materials. In this short piece the absence of punctuation, the title entering the very syntax of the poem, and the remarkable pressure exerted on single words all tend to reify language and to de-emphasize the distinctions between words and things in poetic description. Ideas are in things is the informal refrain of PATERSON, the long epic poem in five books in which Williams extends the early discontinuous imagism of a poem like “Between Walls” into a large discourse revolving around the single figure of a man as a city. Late in his career, image and discourse finally come together supremely in this poem on personal and national history, and in the splendid old man’s love poem, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” in the late volume, JOURNEY TO LOVE. And even in his famous early poem on a red wheelbarrow Williams had affirmed that much depends on the object under scrutiny, using emotional as well as descriptive language and exploding the restrictions of the Imagist school by attempting to unite concepts and objects in a single discourse.
PATERSON develops and makes explicit another, related cluster of speculations on the importance of place. This emphasis is implied in such poems as “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” “Franklin Square,” and “Nantucket,” and indeed it is implied in the anxious descriptive bent of all the early poems, but only in PATERSON does it become a compelling argument against T. S. Eliot’s contention that “place is only place.” Like Wallace Stevens, Williams believes that place is all we have: there is no other place, no other experience, and so the poem will celebrate things for being and happening in themselves, just as it will praise the mind for now and then lighting on something significant. The point is that any man’s experience,...
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