William Carlos Williams

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Williams, William Carlos (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963

A Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, Williams also wrote fiction and nonfiction. His influential works include Paterson and In the American Grain.

Williams' most ambitious work, the long poem, Paterson, is closer to symbolism than anything he has written, if one excepts the "rococo study" called "The Wanderer" which takes for its theme the whole duty of the poet. On the first page of the first section of the first Book of Paterson he declares: "—Say it, no ideas but in things—"….

The subject of this long poem, then, is a town on the Passaic River, and is also Noah Faitoute Paterson, the arkbuilder, the maker, the poet, the person. It shows his development under the tutelage of the city's genius loci as Wordsworth's "Prelude" offers an account of the growth of a poet's mind, however different the presiding local deities and the acknowledgment made them by the minds they helped to shape. It also bears resemblance to the quasi-prose epic in which James Joyce identifies his own native city of Dublin with the mythical tavern keeper whose dreams compose Finnegans Wake. Both the sage of Grasmere and the Irish exile wanted to free the language from deadening incrustations. So, too, Dr. Williams, lamenting those who die incommunicado, either because "the knowledgeable idiots" of the universities have reduced language to sapless abstraction, or because common speech has been so debased that the unlearned are inarticulate, cries out: "the language, the language."…

Paterson presents the poet's naked sensibility, which, though it responds to details so as to make them "voice his most intimate convictions," as the author says in his Note to Book One, defies the formulations of the intellect. Obviously Williams is using here the method that Pound employed in his Cantos. The poem also resembles the Cantos in the way in which it moves between music and plain prose. It is musical not alone in the lyricism of certain passages but in its presentation and recapitulation of themes. Thus the fourth and final Book, which deals with the "perverse confusions" that come of the failure of language and, less plainly, with the poet as savior, repeats the motifs of the earlier books with the same imagery, even to the African chieftain and his nine wives, and ends with a man by the seashore, walking inland with his dog. The tone is for the most part conversational, and the poem includes large fragments of prose discourse imperfectly assimilated. If Paterson is rarely as good as Pound's major work at its best, it is far more alive than the drearier sections of the Cantos. Both poets are concerned with communication, and with the forces obstructing and debasing it. The great difference is that for Williams the time is not antiquity or the renaissance, but now (he sees its old roots); the scene is no foreign country, but is the provincial factory town on the Passaic in all the sordidness of its abused beauty and energy.

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright by Babette Deutsch), New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1952, pp. 104-08.

William Carlos Williams is as magically observant and mimetic as a good novelist. He reproduces the details of what he sees with surprising freshness, clarity, and economy; and he sees just as extraordinarily, sometimes, the forms of this earth, the spirit moving behind the letters. His quick transparent lines have a nervous and contracted strength, move as jerkily and intently as a bird. Sometimes they have a marvelous delicacy and gentleness, a tact of pure showing; how well he calls into existence our precarious, confused, partial looking out at the world—our being-here-looking, just looking! And if he is often pure presentation, he is often pure exclamation, and delights in yanking something into life with a galvanic imperative or interjection. All this proceeds from the whole bent of his nature: he prefers a clear, active, intense confusion to any "wise passiveness," to any calm and clouded...

(The entire section is 4,223 words.)