Oct 7 2023
Poetry review – PATERSON: Alwyn Marriage considers a re-issue of the monumental and unfinished epic by William Carlos Williams
Paterson William Carlos Williams (edited by Christopher MacGowan) Carcanet Classics, 2023 ISBN 9-781800-173613 311 pages £20
The American poet, William Carlos Williams, wrote his epic poem, Paterson, in the 1940s and 1950s. The five completed parts were published between 1946 and 1958, and the sixth part was never finished. Carcanet has now chosen to re-publish it in its entirety in the Carcanet Classics series, which will bring the work to the attention of a modern audience.
Paterson has been compared in terms of the scale of the endeavour to Ezra Pound’s Cantos. There is, perhaps, some similarity in the fact that both are so clearly examples of twentieth century American writing; but the resemblance may not go much further than that. The poet is aware that his work is patently American and on page 46 he compares the ways in which English is used on different sides of the Atlantic:
I asked him, What do you do? He smiled patiently The typical American question, In Europe they would ask, What are you doing? Or, What are you doing now? What do I do? I listen, to the water falling. (No sound of it here but with the wind!) This is my entire occupation. (p46. Italics by the poet.)
The Paterson that Carlos Williams writes about is a New England city and community, with all the complex colour and ordinariness of the lives of its inhabitants. Time passes even in Paterson, and individuals and the community itself gradually age:
Paterson has grown older the dog of his thoughts has shrunk to no more than a "passionate letter" to a woman, a woman he had neglected to put to bed in the past (page 227).
Throughout the book, prose passages and verse alternate. Some of the prose passages are extremely interesting, but it is sometimes difficult to see why they are relevant to the work, or how the ‘poem’ would have been poorer without them.
There is, however, almost a sense of lightness in Paterson which is attractive, particularly when the poet allows touches of humour to creep into some of the historical records. One example of this is the delightful picture of two police officers chasing a mink down the street, having failed either to club it to death or to shoot it. (page 49).
Paterson is very different from any of the poetry one normally associates with William Carlos Williams. I was interested to discover a number of passages that seemed to bear the imprint of T S Eliot. So, for instance, whether one takes the very beginning of the work:
To make a start, out of particulars
or the end of Part 4:
This is the blast the eternal close the spiral the final somersault the end. (p202)
or a passage from the middle:
The measure intervenes, to measure is all we know a choice among the measures . . the measured dance "unless the scent of a rose startle us anew" (page 235)
it is difficult not to hear echoes of Eliot, whose work must, of course, have been very familiar to Carlos Williams. The bringing together of the concepts of birth and death is also reminiscent of Eliot, although one might rebuff that by showing that such a comparison was not unique to Eliot any more than it was to Carlos Williams.
Some of the verse passages are much more typical of the work one normally associates with Carlos Williams and have intrinsic value:
Fire burns; that is the first law When a wind fans it, the flames are carried abroad. Talk fans the flames. They have manoeuvred it so that to write is a fire and not only of the blood. (page 113)
In old age the mind casts off rebelliously an eagle from its crag (page 205).
Both these examples are likely to remind us of the identity of the poet.
For a poet who is probably best known for the economy of words in most of his poems, it is curious that he should have attempted such a mammoth work as Paterson. It is, perhaps tempting to ask why the epic was left unfinished. Did Carlos Williams get bored with it, run out of steam, or was he still working on Part 6 when he died in 1963? However, we are unlikely to receive an answer to that question.
I am left unsure why Carcanet felt it worthwhile to re-issue this work as I cannot imagine that it is likely to attract a large readership. However, it does introduce the modern reader to an interesting experiment from the mid-twentieth century American literature scene and therefore presumably has value, particularly to students of American poetry.