Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4578
Like Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams attempted to create an American voice for American poetry. Both Whitman and Williams wanted to record the unique American experience in a distinctively American idiom, a language freed from the constraints of traditional English prosody. Whitman, as Williams says in his autobiography, broke from the traditional iambic pentameter, but he had only begun the necessary revolution. It was then up to Williams to use “the new dialect” to continue Whitman’s work by constructing a prosody based on actual American speech.
Williams’s search for a new language using the American idiom was intertwined with his search for a new poetic measure. Although he wanted to recover the relationship between poetry and the measured dance from which he believed it derived, his concept of measure is elusive. He believed that Whitman’s free verse lacked structure. Williams sought a new foot that would be fairly stable, yet at the same time was variable, a foot that was not fixed but allowed for variation according to what the language called for. While the traditional poetic foot is based on the number of syllables in a line, Williams based his poetic foot on “a measure of the ear.” The proper measure would allow him to present the American idiom as controlled by the rhythm of American speech.
When Williams wrote his early poems, he had not yet developed his own poetical theory; he first wrote conventionally and then according to the Imagist credo. He created some very good pictures of “things,” and his poems achieved a reality of their own, but they did not go beyond the particulars to express universal truths—something that involves more than merely re-creating data.
In “The Red Wheelbarrow,” for example, all the reader is left with is the picture of the red wheelbarrow and the white chickens beside it standing in the rain. In “Poem,” the cat climbs over the jamcloset into the empty flower pot; Williams conveys nothing more than this picture. Other examples of Williams’s poems of this period include “The Locust Tree in Flower” (the locust tree in flower is sweet and white, and brings May again), “Between Walls” (behind the hospital in the cinders of the courtyard shine the pieces of a broken green bottle), and “This Is Just to Say” (the poet tells his wife he has eaten the plums she was saving in the icebox).
In “To a Poor Old Woman,” Williams does not convey any meaning beyond the picture he evokes of an old woman munching on a plum that she has taken from a bag she is holding in her hand. He does, however, experiment with the way he places the words of the line “They taste good to her” on the page. He repeats the line three times. First, he puts all the words on one line without a period at the end of the line; then he writes “They taste good/ to her. They taste/ good to her.” He is searching for the correct form to use—the elusive measure needed.
In the epic poem Paterson, Williams sought to cover the landscape of contemporary American society and to discover himself as an American poet. His twenty-year journey in Paterson is similar to that of Hart Crane in The Bridge (1930), Ezra Pound in the Cantos (1925-1972), and T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943). Just as Whitman revised the poems of Leaves of Grass (1855) continuously and frequently moved them from section to section within the volume, so Williams identified Paterson with his own continuing life as a poet.
Paterson consists of five books and a projected sixth; each book is made up of three sections. In “The Delineaments of the Giants” (Paterson, book 1, 1946), Mr. Paterson, as he wanders through the city Paterson, describes details of the town and the area around it: the valley, the Passaic Falls, and Garret Mountain. Williams creates a history for the city as he describes past and present inhabitants and events concerning both them and the city. In “Sunday in the Park” (Paterson, book 2, 1948), the persona walks through Garret Mountain Park on a Sunday afternoon; there he views the workers of Paterson in their Sunday leisure activities. “The Library” (Paterson, book 3, 1949) takes place in the library, where the persona searches to discover how best to express the aspects of the city of Paterson that he has described in the first two books. “The Run to the Sea” (Paterson, book 4, 1951) takes place in two locales—New York City and an entrance to the sea. The first section consists mostly of dialogues between Corydon and Phyllis, and Phyllis and Paterson. The section involves Madame Marie Curie’s discovery of uranium and a digressive discussion of economics in America. The final section of the fourth book presents accounts of events, mostly violent, concerning the inhabitants of Paterson; it ends with the persona and a dog headed inland after they have emerged from the sea. Paterson, book 5, which does not have a title, takes place in the Cloisters, a museum on the Hudson River in New York City. This book is shorter than the others and some critics refer to it as a coda to Paterson, books 1-4. Having grown old, the persona contemplates the meaning of a series of unicorn tapestries in the museum.
Paterson can be difficult reading. The persona of the poem does not remain constant; moreover, “Paterson” refers to both the city and the man. There are a number of other personas in Paterson who are sometimes ambiguously fused. Paterson the city becomes Paterson the man, who is also a woman, who becomes the poet writing Paterson, who is also William Carlos Williams, a poet and a man.
In addition, Williams shifts from verse to prose without transitional devices, and there are many such shifts within verse passages, from persona to persona, and from subject matter to subject matter. The prose passages, sometimes taken directly from an exterior source, range from newspaper clippings and quotations from various books to letters by Williams’s fictional personas.
Paterson is Williams’s attempt to delineate his culture and to define himself poetically. The two quests are interrelated. Williams can present details of the America that he sees and describe aspects of its culture. He wants, however, to convey the truths in what he describes and the universals concerning his vision. To be able to do so, he must work out his poetic theory and discover himself as a poet.
In Paterson, Williams relied importantly on local particulars. First, he chose a city that actually existed. In The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, he writes of taking the city Paterson and working it up as a case, just as he worked up cases as a doctor. According to Joel Conarroe in William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson” (1970), Paterson was a city that was similar to Williams’s native Rutherford, but one that better possessed the characteristics that Williams needed for his poem. Paterson had existed since the beginning of America and therefore had a history. It was a very American city with a diverse population, about one-third of which was foreign-born. Located on the Passaic River with the Passaic Falls, Paterson was bounded on one side by Garret Mountain. Partially because of these natural resources, it was one of the first industrial cities in America. Furthermore, its industry grew steadily, and it was often the scene of well-known strikes. Fortunately for the action of the poem, Paterson also suffered a major fire, flood, and tornado.
Williams peoples his poem with persons who actually existed and uses events that actually occurred. Often, in the prose passages, he gives the specifics about the inhabitants and events. In Paterson, book 1, Williams develops a history for the city of Paterson. He tells the reader the number of inhabitants of each nationality living in Paterson in 1870. He describes some of the inhabitants. David Hower, for example, is a poor shoemaker who in February, 1857, while eating mussels, finds substances that turn out to be pearls. A gentleman in the Revolutionary Army describes a monster in human form, Pieter Van Winkle. His description is followed by the account of a 126-pound monster fish taken by John Winters and other boys. Sarah Cumming, the wife of the Reverend Hopper Cumming for two months, mysteriously disappears into the falls just after her husband turns from the cataract to go home. When the bridge that Timothy B. Crane built is being placed across the falls, Sam Patch jumps to retrieve a rolling pin and thus begins his career as a famous jumper, a career that ends when he attempts to jump the falls of the Genessee River in 1829. The reader learns exactly what Cornelius Doremus owned when he died at eighty-nine years of age and what each item was worth. At one time, the men of Paterson ravage the river and kill almost all its fish. Finally, the reader is told about Leonard Sandford, who discovers a human body near the falls.
In Paterson, Books II-V, Williams continues to present details about the geography, inhabitants, and events of Paterson; as the poem progresses, however, he relies less on prose from historical accounts in books and newspapers and more on letters, dialogues, and verse. The particulars also become more personally related to the fictional poet of the poem or to Bill (Dr. Williams). There are passages about the Indians who first lived in the area. Williams includes a tabular account of the specimens found when men were digging an artesian well at the Passaic Rolling Mill, Paterson, and an advertisement concerning borrowing money on the credit of the United States. Phyllis, an uneducated black woman, writes several letters to her father. Throughout the poem, a woman poet (C. or Cress), another poet (A. G.), and Edward or E. D. (Edward Dahlberg) write letters to a person without a name, to Dr. Paterson, to Dr. Williams, and to Bill.
In addition to all these particulars, Williams deals with aspects of American society. A major weakness of contemporary American culture is the inability of people to communicate with others and even with themselves. In Paterson, book 1, Williams immediately introduces the problems with language faced by the inhabitants of Paterson. Industrialization is one of the sources of their difficulties; industrialization and materialism separate them from themselves and from each other. The people walk incommunicado; they do not know the words with which to communicate. It is as if they face an equation that cannot be solved, for language fails them. Although there is a torrent in their minds, they cannot unlock that torrent since they do not know themselves.
Sam Patch is an example of a man who dies incommunicado. Before he attempts to dive into the falls of the Genessee River, he makes a short speech. The words, however, are drained of meaning and they fail him. He disappears into the stream and is not seen until the following spring, when he is found frozen in ice, still locked in by his inability to communicate.
In the second part of Paterson, book 2, Williams describes Madame Curie’s discovery of uranium, a discovery that he relates to the need in America for the discovery of a new credit system. This system would be like “the radiant gist” that Madame Curie discovered and would cure America’s economic cancer, a condition contributing to people’s inability to communicate. The lust for money and the industrialization of society cut people off from their roots and from other people.
Humanity’s problems with language are reflected in the relationships between man and woman. The love of man and woman consummated in marriage should be a means of communication, but in contemporary society “divorce” is the common word: “The language/ is divorced from their minds.” In Paterson, book 1, Williams tells of Sarah Cumming, who after two months of marriage has everything to look forward to, but who mysteriously disappears into the falls after her husband turns his back on her. Marriage, then, is no answer to the problem of communication. The words locked in the “falls” of the human mind must be released. Immediately after the prose section about Sarah Cumming comes the passage “A false language. A true. A false language pouring—a/ language (misunderstood) pouring (misinterpreted) without/ dignity, without minister, crashing upon a stone ear. At least/ it settled it for her.”
In Paterson, book 2, as Paterson walks through Garret Mountain Park, the breakdown of language is reflected in the religious and sexual life of the Paterson workers as they spend their leisure time on a Sunday afternoon. A sermon by the itinerant evangelist Klaus Ehrens is a meaningless harangue; he does not communicate with those in the park. The relationship between man and woman is reduced to a sexual act of lust without meaning; it is not even an act that will produce children. Language and communication between man and woman is exhausted. Ironically, B. is told in a letter by someone who has been caring for a dog that the dog is going to have puppies; animals, unlike humans, remain fertile.
The first section of Paterson, book 4, is primarily a narrative consisting of dialogues between Corydon and Phyllis, and Phyllis and Paterson. In both relationships, the participants fail to communicate successfully. Corydon is an old lesbian who is halfheartedly attempting to seduce Phyllis, a virgin. Paterson is also an unsuccessful lover of the young black nurse. Phyllis writes letters to her Pappy in uneducated English. In the last letter, she tells him of a trip with Corydon to Anticosti—a name that sounds Italian but is French. The two women have a guide who speaks French with Corydon. Phyllis cannot understand what they are saying; she does not care, however, because she can speak her own language. The dialogues reveal relationships in which there is a potential for love and communication, but in which there is a failure to communicate.
Williams describes the predicament of Paterson, but he wants to convey the universals of American society and go beyond the “facts” to the “ideas.” Being able to express the general through “things” is part of Williams’s quest to define himself as a poet. Paterson is a search for the redeeming language needed to enable contemporary humans to communicate; the quest itself, however, is valuable even if the redeeming language is not discovered.
In the preface to Paterson, Williams states that the poem is the quest to find the needed language (“beauty”) that is locked in his mind. Soon after, in Paterson, book 1, Williams indicates that he is attempting to determine “what common language to unravel.” Mr. Paterson, the persona, will go away to rest and write. Thus, Williams begins his quest for the redeeming language.
Paterson, book 1, ends with a quotation from Studies of Greek Poets (1873) by John Addington Symonds in which Symonds discusses Hipponax’s attempt to use a meter appropriate for prose and common speech. Symonds also notes that the Greeks used the “deformed verse” of Hipponax for subjects dealing with humanity’s perversions. Thus, the Greek poets devised a prosody suitable to their society, just as Williams seeks a measure to express American society.
Throughout Paterson, several letters by the woman poet C., or Cress, interrelate the theme of man’s failure to communicate, especially through heterosexual love, and the poet’s function to solve this problem of language. The longest of her letters, covering six-and-a-half pages, appears at the end of Paterson, book 2. In it she complains about woman’s wretched position in society. She is particularly upset about her relationship, or lack of relationship, with Dr. P. She has tried to communicate intimately and has shared thoughts with him that she has not shared with anyone else. He has rejected her. She accuses him of having used her; he has encouraged her first letters only because he could turn them into literature and use them in his poem. As long as her letters were only literature—a literature divorced from life—their relationship was satisfactory, but when she attempted to use her letters to communicate on a personal level, he turned his back on her. When her writings became an expression of herself, their friendship failed. She thus expresses an idea that E. D. had stated earlier in the poem—that the literary work and its author cannot be separated. An artist derives a unity of being and a freedom to be himself when he achieves a successful relationship between the externals, such as the paint, clay, or language that he uses, and his shaping of these externals.
In Paterson, book 2, the persona goes to the library to try to learn how, as a poet, to express the details of the city described in the first two books. The library contains many acts of communication, but all of them are from the past and will not serve the poet in his quest for the redeeming language that will free humanity and himself. The poet in the poem, and Williams himself by implication, have failed to communicate, both as poets and as men.
Briefly at the beginning of Paterson, book 3, Williams suggests the need for an “invention” without which the old will return with deadly repetitiveness. Only invention will bring the new line that in turn brings the new word, a word that is required now that words have crumbled like chalk. Invention requires the poet to reject old forms and exhausted words in order to find the new-measured language. Throughout this book, there is destruction and violence. The natural disasters that occurred in Paterson (the flood, the fire, and the tornado) and made it necessary for the inhabitants to rebuild sections of the city suggest the poet’s search in which he finds it necessary to destroy in order to create. The poet does not find what he is searching for, because both the invention and words are lacking. Nevertheless, he continues his search for “the beautiful thing.”
Near the end of Paterson, book 3, the poet experiments with form and language. On one page, Williams places the lines almost at random. It is as if someone has taped various typed lines carelessly on the page without making sure that the lines are parallel or that they make sense when read. There are numbers and words in both English and French. The reader is invited to consider the meanings evoked by “funeral designed,” “plants,” and “wedding bouquets.” On the following page there are four passages in which the words are abbreviations meant to be a phonological representation of the words of an illiterate person. Immediately after these passages appears the tabular account of the specimens found when a water well is being dug. Water brings life and rebirth. The poet wants to unlock the language of the falls that had filled his head earlier and to create the new-measured language. He concludes that “American poetry is a very easy subject to discuss for the/ simple reason that it does not exist.”
In Paterson, book 4, Williams returns to Madame Curie’s “radiant gist”; the poet hopes to make a similar discovery in his poetry so that he can heal those who suffer from an inadequate language. The poet reminds himself that his “virgin” purpose is the language and that he must forget the past. At the end of the book, he emerges from the sea, which has been presented in terms of violence, and heads inland eating a plum and followed by a dog that has also been swimming in the sea. Williams concludes that “This is the blast/ the eternal close/ the spiral/ the final somersault/ the end.” Williams suggests process in this end; the end is a spiral similar to a Möbius strip in which the end is always a return to the beginning.
Again Williams interrelates the poet’s art and the process of love. Both are a means of communication between man and woman and a way for a person to discover himself; both, he explains in Paterson, book 5, involve a paradox. The virgin’s maidenhead must be violently destroyed in the sexual act for her to realize her potential to create another human being. The poet must destroy past forms to discover the form appropriate for his time; Williams must reject the language and form of past poetry to create the new-measured language that will express contemporary American society and provide for communication among men.
Paterson, book 5, contains a question-and-answer section in which Williams discusses his theory of poetry. Poetry is made of words that have been organized rhythmically; a poem is a complete entity that has a separate existence. If the poem is any good, it expresses the life of the poet and tells the reader what the poet is. Anything can be the subject of poetry. The poet in America must use the American idiom, but the manner in which the words are presented is of the greatest importance. Sometimes a modern poet ignores the sense of words. In prose, words mean what they say, but in poetry words present two different things: what they actually mean and what their shape means. Williams cites Pieter Brueghel as an artist who saw from two sides. Brueghel painted authentically what he saw, yet at the same time served the imagination. The measured dance, life as it is presented in art by the imagination, is all that humans can know. The answer to the poet’s quest is that “We know nothing and can know nothing/ but/ the dance, to dance to a measure/ contrapuntally,/ Satyrically, the tragic foot.” The poet presents life in a form appropriate to the time in which he lives; he presents the particulars of life that are a contrast or interplay of elements directed by his sexual desires and need for love, his humanity.
It is in the poems that Williams wrote during the last ten years of his life that he achieves greatness—the poems collected in The Desert Music, and Other Poems, Journey to Love, and Pictures from Brueghel. In these, he uses the new-measured language he had sought in Paterson, books 1-5, but more important, he goes beyond “things” to “ideas.” The poems are more than pretty subjects; in them he discovers “the beautiful thing.”
Some of the best poems of this period are “To Daphne and Virginia,” “The Sparrow (To My Father),” “A Negro Woman,” “Self-Portrait,” “The Hunters in the Snow,” “The Wedding Dance in the Open Air,” “The Parable of the Blind,” “Children’s Games,” “Song” (beginning “beauty is a shell”), “The Woodthrush,” and “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”
When Williams was asked in 1961 to choose his favorite poem for an anthology called Poet’s Choice, he selected “The Descent” from Paterson, book 2. He said that he had been using “the variable foot” for many years, but “The Descent” was the first in that form that completely satisfied him. “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” from Journey to Love, is another poem in which Williams truly succeeds, and a discussion of that poem provides a good summary to a discussion of Williams’s poetry.
“Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”
In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Williams uses his new-measured language, containing “fresh” words (the American idiom) written in a measure appropriate to his times and controlled by the rhythm of American speech (“the variable foot” in the triadic stanza). He is also concerned with creating a poem that has its own existence and is a “thing” in itself. Williams draws from the particulars of American life and his own life to evoke images of the United States and its culture; now that he has discovered the new-measured language, however, he can express universal truths about America and its culture. The poem at the same time expresses Williams’s life as a poet and points to what he is and believes.
Williams uses his new-measured language to capture the flow of American speech as well as to reinforce and emphasize the content and meaning of the poem. For example, in one passage, the measure of the lines suggests the urgency of the present, then slows into memory and reminiscence and finally into silence. At another point, Williams’s measure gives the sense of the rolling sea. James Breslin in William Carlos Williams: An American Artist (1970) discusses in detail Williams’s use of the American idiom presented in “the variable foot” and triadic stanza.
Williams uses natural details such as the asphodel, the honeysuckle, the bee, the lily, the hummingbird, apple blossoms, strawberries, the lily of the valley, and daisies. He uses particulars from his own life: a trip he took with his wife, a time he was separated from her, and their wedding day. He makes references to his own poetry; a young artist likes Williams’s poem about the broken green bottle lying in the cinders in the hospital courtyard and says he has heard about, but not read, Williams’s poem on gay wallpaper.
The new-measured language enables Williams to draw from the facts and details of the locale to reach the realm of the imagination and convey truths about humanity. He begins the poem by addressing the asphodel, but immediately, his “song” becomes one addressed to his wife of many years, not to the flower. Throughout the poem there is constant shifting between the image of the asphodel and Floss, as well as a fusing of the two particulars. The flower at times becomes a symbol. As Breslin explains, the poem is a continuing process as the “things” expand to the “ideas” beyond them, and the truths expressed contract back into the particular images.
The poem is a realistic love song that conveys the nature of the man who is the poet creating the poem. He asks his wife to forgive him because too often medicine, poetry, and other women have been his prime concerns, not her and their life together. The asphodel becomes a symbol of his renewed love for her in his old age. He can ask for her forgiveness because he has come to realize that love has the power to undo what has been done. Love must often serve a function similar to that of the poet, for the poet also must undo what has been done by destroying past forms in order to create new ones.
In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” Williams regrets that he has reached a time when he can no longer put down the words that come to him out of the air and create poems. Through the details of his poetry, he has attempted to express the general truths of the imagination. With his old age, however, he has gained knowledge that makes him optimistic. “Are facts not flowers/ and flowers facts/ or poems flowers/ or all words of the imagination,/ interchangeable?” “Flowers” or “facts,” “poems” and “words of the imagination” are interchangeable, for everything is a work of the imagination. What is important is that love is a force of the imagination that rules things, words, and poems; love is life’s form for poetry. Through love and poetry, all people will be able to communicate. Both love and works of the imagination, be they artistic endeavors or otherwise, are creative powers that are people’s means of escaping death. This is the universal truth, the “idea” that Williams has come to, through the particulars of his poetry and his life.