William Carlos Williams

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Williams, William Carlos (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Williams, William Carlos 1883–1963

Williams, a brilliant American poet, as well as a distinguished editor, novelist, playwright, and essayist, also practiced medicine throughout his career. His devotion to the individual expression of his art led him to the free verse style and evocation of personal experience reflected in Paterson, perhaps his most famous work. Striving to create in a uniquely "American" idiom, Williams endeavored to produce a poetry which at once reflected the personal and the universal. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 5.)

The early sixteenth-century French or Flemish Unicorn tapestries which now hang in the Cloisters at Fort Tryon Park in New York City contribute to the subject matter of Book V [of Paterson] and provide a symbolic depth which the poem had previously lacked…. Similarly, the Unicorn tapestries provide an analogy for understanding Williams' arrangement of the material in Paterson. That is to say, the weavers' interlacing of colored threads to form a design is analogous to the ways in which Williams develops his themes by the interlacing and juxtaposition of events, images, phrases, and other "things" which he had amassed for his long poem. In his essay "Caviar and Bread Again" Williams describes the poet's function in terms of weaving: "he [the poet] has been the fortunate one who has gathered all the threads together that have been spun for many centuries before him and woven them into his design." (pp. 288-89)

There are basically two kinds of interlace in Paterson. The first can be described generally as the interweaving of originally or logically continuous, or of basically homogenous, material (such as newspaper items or historical excerpts) throughout a section or sections of the poem. (p. 291)

The interweaving of excerpts from Cress's letters throughout the first two books of Paterson provides [an] example of this type of interlace. (p. 296)

The interlacing of fragments from Cress's letters accomplishes basically three things. In the first place, Williams is able to sustain a linear rhythm throughout the first two books as the reader gradually learns what is on Cress's mind. Secondly, the technique of interlace also creates an acentric, simultaneous effect as beginnings, endings, and incongruent materials are juxtaposed. Finally, the juxtapositions which are created confer new significance upon the letters and also upon the material with which the letter interacts upon the page.

The second and most dominant type of interlace in Paterson is the continual process of cross-referencing which occurs throughout the poem. It is based primarily on a number of narrative sequences, events, or images, initially related in full, elements of which are later used to amplify and illuminate certain aspects of the poem. The later references bring to mind the original event and as a result that event, as well as the context in which the reference now occurs, acquires an added dimension and must be continuously re-evaluated. (pp. 298-99)

Paterson's struggle to interpret the language of the falls, his search for a "redeeming language," is the major motif of the poem. Therefore,… the premature deaths of Cumming and Patch, which are intermittently referred to or subtly evoked throughout the first four books of Paterson, contribute to the elucidation and development of the poem's major motif…. (p. 300)

Throughout the first four books of the poem, Paterson is drawn toward the idea of jumping into the falls. The references to Sam Patch and Mrs. Cumming provide elicit reminders of Paterson's possible fate…. In light of the numerous drownings throughout the poem it is significant that at the end of Book IV a man walks out of the water, indicating that at least a key to a redeeming language has been found through the enactment of the four books of Paterson: "But he escapes, in the end, as I have said."

The interlacing of references to Cumming and Patch throughout the poem induces in the reader not only a continuous reappraisal of these two...

(The entire section is 5,415 words.)