Paterson - by William Carlos Williams. A long poem of five books, with many many insertions of prose from a variety of sources; correspondence, old newspapers, textbooks, print ads, and his own invention and memory. Each book is dated: 1946, 1948, 1949, 1951, and 1958. Williams died before writing more than a small portion of book 6.

It was originally intended to be four books long, framed by his metaphor of the Passaic River and falls. The river signifies (among other things) speech, communication, etc. and the stages of the river are used to illustrate and explore that idea (above the falls, the falls themselves, below the falls, and the mouth to the sea). He discovered, however, that he wasn't quite done yet.

Paterson is complex, and in turns joyous and weighed down with care. It is, to me, a poem about being a poet. It is, of course, about other things as well, but that is what struck me the most upon reading it. That it is about a man trying to understand his need to write and his constant struggle for authenticity and realism without sacrificing wonder.

On that note, here is a short paper I just wrote on an aspect of Paterson. It is by no means comprehensive or exhaustive. For that, you'll have to read the book. Go. Read the book. It's worth it.

A potent aspect of Paterson is how within its frame Williams not only enacts the subtleties of his unique poetic form, but also dramatizes his realization of that form. Williams refers to a number of artists and works as he expresses agony over how to manipulate poetic structure and narrative. Those which fall within the category of graphic arts are numerous. They range from medieval tapestries and woodcuts to contemporary cubist and pointillist artists. An examination of the text reveals that not only has Williams employed similar stylistic approaches, but that he has actually echoed the content of many of the paintings he mentions. This goes far beyond the passages where he describes certain works in detail. Instead, he has actually recreated in writing what others have done in a visual medium. The following is an examination of how Williams has translated a number of graphic techniques and aesthetics into Paterson, as well as some specific examples of direct evocation.

Williams’ preference was not bound by century so much as by style. He mentions by name Paul Signac (Williams 24), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (111, 204), and Jackson Pollock (211). Paul Klee, Albrecht Dürer (Melancholy), Leonardo da Vinci (La Gioconda), Hieronymus Bosch (Hell), Pablo Picasso, and Juan Gris (219-220). Pieter Bruegel (The Adoration of the Magi) begins 5:IV (223-225), and the unicorn tapestries in the Cloisters collection repeatedly appear (126, 209-210, 213, 228-234). Abstract Arabic art is mentioned (220), and in the title of Book Two, A Sunday in the Park, there is perhaps an allusion to Georges Seurat (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte). Sandro Botticelli (The Birth of Venus) is alluded to in 4:III (200). By far the greatest number of named artists appear in Book Five, although Signac, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Dürer (120) appear earlier. However, the effects of Williams’ relationship to visual art permeates the entire work.

These artists are predominantly involved in trying to represent truth unconventionally. They each attempt to push the limitations of their craft into new ways of seeing and compelling. There is the surrealism of Bosch that is bursting with activity. The alternating suppressed tension and vivacity of pointillism. The minimalist yet comprehensive nature of cubism. There is the compressed time and hieratic narrative conventions of medieval tapestry, with all its symbolic elevation as well as its unabashed earthiness and humor. A form that had no qualms about imbedding a fantastical subject (the unicorn) into a naturalistic environment in which the vegetation is so realistic its species can be determined. There is Bruegel’s Adoration about which the narrator says ''(I salute// the man Brueghel {sic} who painted// what he saw—'' (224). The irony of course it that Bruegel illustrated an event that he had not seen. The truth lies in how he adapted his experience and imbued his work with realism in order to make it human and compelling.

This is all relevant to Williams’ work, which is highly visual and rooted in a sense of physical space, in concrete things and realism. Williams had discovered the limitations of realism. Paterson examines his quest to find ways of eliminating the binding assumptions that make realism narrow, while not eviscerating its power. One way of destabilizing realism is in the treatment of time. Linearity is not commonly associated with graphic art, and the spatial games which artists use in their work can give clues towards creating a very different literary form.

the majority of Paterson does not progress linearly or with temporal clarity. By nature, the experience of reading is linear and temporal. In order to break the sense of linear progression, Williams has interleaved passages of explicit time (newspaper clippings) which do not appear in chronological order, with undated passages which narratively do appear in chronological order (the letters of Marcia Nardi and Allen Ginsberg). He has also added passages of indeterminate time, and then reflected on them out of sequence within his poems. This gives his work a sense of perpetual immanence, creating the illusion of following thoughts as they occur and experiencing the 'live' non-linear thought of the narrator. Like Jackson Pollock’s work, Paterson has tension, tempo, and progression without chronology (Burbick 115). The focus is constantly shifting, and leading one away from straightforward narrative. This is similar to looking at a large, involved painting and allowing one’s eye to skip from point to point, catching the more arresting images first and noticing the nuances later. In the case of Pollock’s work, it becomes kinetic in experience despite its static presentation. The power does not exist in any one element, but in the interrelationship of all, and in the satisfaction and disappointment of expectation (115). In this way, Williams' prose insertions are both clues and distractions and separate narratives which impinge on and influence the rest of the text in ways the reader cannot anticipate.

A clue to Williams’ opinion on this can be found in the passage quoted from a letter by Edward Dahlberg; ''With you the book is one thing and the man who wrote it another. The conception of time in literature and in chronicles makes it easy for men to make such hoax cleavages.'' (Williams 28) That this is something Williams has come to agree with is evident both in how he has conflated the aspects of Paterson the Poet, Man, City, and Text, and in how he has blurred the sense of time. There is no solid anchor. The present time of the text is indicated by the prominent date which precede each book. However, once within the poem, this date becomes inadequate as the text weaves backward and forward in time, giving great chronological and biographical detail only for the events most distant from the narrator (the newspaper accounts).

Of course, conforming slavishly to unconventional methods simply establishes a new convention. So, as if in prophylaxis, there are portions of Paterson which have pronounced direction. Sections 2:I and 2:II (Sunday in the Park) are unexpectedly chronological and linear, exploding the developing comfort with (apparent) chaos. Williams creates a sensation of moving forward by preserving a clear temporal and spatial order through having the day pass into night and his narrator ascend the mountain path. This increases with the anaphora of ''Walking—'' which repeats six times in 2:I and then once towards the beginning of 2:II (44, 45,47,52, 58, 63). The word is set apart, placed alone against the left margin, and marked with an m-dash. It punctuates and bridges several of the interludes along the path and establishes a sense of continuity without ever becoming an automatic convention.

Meanwhile, although not all of the prose insertions are chronological to each other, they are chronological to themselves when broken into smaller sections. One particular section, the initial article regarding the German singing societies, breaks off mid-sentence, further heightening the sensation of movement, brief glimpses of lives, and also a sense of frustration and dissatisfaction (46). Additionally, the moments of narrator exposition are only snippets of people’s lives. These moments frozen in verse are informal, yet detailed. Their individual context does not exist beyond what can be extrapolated from the narrator’s descriptions. Because of this, the sections have a strong similarity to a montage of live action intercut with more formal archival footage and photographs.

However, this effect is also similar again to the wandering of one’s eye when examining a large, extremely detailed canvas. Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte provides an interesting perspective. The still quality of the figures made up entirely of tiny motes of color captures the attention to detail with very different impact. It evokes something of the distance of the narrator to the other people, a human level of observation rather than participation, instead of the monumental remove of something like the Bosch painting. The festive yet proper attire also hints at the conventionality of the Sunday excursion and its surface of propriety.

Despite the stillness of the image, there is a great deal of tension in its implicit congestion. There is only enough room for all of these people if they refrain from moving. There is the sense that a single out of sequence action will create chaos, and indeed there is a small child running towards the dark woods in the background. There are also two unfettered dogs in the foreground. A small dog in one of the few animated poses in the painting rushes headlong towards a larger dog who has not yet seen it. Mayhem is incipient in this park, frozen in a moment of preternatural beauty. Here too is transgression of ''NO DOGS ALLOWED AT LARGE IN THIS PARK'' (61).

Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is particularly apt when examining influences of and resonances with paintings. The center panel of this workk is filled with hundreds of human figures involved in assorted pleasurable activities of the flesh. The painting teems. There is no conceivable way to absorb all of it at once, although looking at the whole reveals that the piece does have a unifying structure, as has Paterson. Still, to fully appreciate it, each section must still be examined in all its minute perfection. The distance of the viewer to the people in the painting is exaggerated by their small size and the relative gigantic stature of the painter and viewer in comparison. This work resonates well with Sunday in the Park for both thematic and structural reasons.

Later, in 3:I-3:III, the connection continues with the anaphora of ''beautiful thing'' and ''so be it'' which creates a tension similar to the Paradise and Hell side panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights (95-145). The burning of Liege represented at the top of Hell is suggestive of the burning library and city. What is most interesting is how Williams turns it so that beauty can be found in the low and debased (127-128). The fire is not entirely evil, and he does not accept the judgement presented by Bosch’s painting. He instead subverts it to reveal the heavenly in human imperfection. The connection to The Garden of Earthly Delights is further strengthened by the overleaf of the side panels, on which are painted a drowned representation of the flat Earth titled The Creation of the World. This corresponds to the flooding which occurs in 3:III which covers everything in a fetid muck that clogs rather than fertilizes. Again, subverting the message of the painting for an earthly need to understand good in evil and evil in good.

Another example of both breaking conventional linearity while maintaining a temporal progression lies in the presentation of 4:I (An Idyl {sic}). The section is divided into four subdivisions of narrative which are further divided into a total of twenty-one sketches. The entire section is presented in chronological order. However, the sketches are interleaved instead of presented independently, and the content is ambiguously coded so that no single perspective has all of that point-of-view’s necessary context. Because of this, comprehension is slightly delayed, which is just enough to bring multiple sides of the same event into focus almost simultaneously. This technique is highly suggestive of cubism, especially the revealing of all sides at once.

Interestingly enough, Williams chose to return to the unicorn tapestries and Bruegel for book five. It as if in his own age he began to crave the effortless combination of magic and realism in those works. In book five, he lists several artists of many genres, including those listed above. He marvels, in book five, at the difficulties of finding new ways of expression that look deceptively simple. He begins with the modern artists, mentioning how Klee’s work looks like a child did it, yet a child could not (219-220). He even mentions Arabic art, which in rejection of idols turns words into glorious abstract art. Most vivid is his description of the tapestries combination of minimal perspective, compression of time so that many events occur on the same panel, the attention to minute detail, yet the terseness of the narrative. The amazing subtleties, jokes, and accuracy of physical representation combined with the sheer inventiveness of the magic and that the work was constructed over a long period of time and by many hands (230-234).

Book five has a contemplative feel, often distant and observant. And it is the final, necessary transgression of the form Williams established in books one through four. Both a painting of words and a tapestry of ideas, if Paterson is Williams, then Paterson could not be completed in Williams’ lifetime.

Burbick, Joan. ''Grimaces of a New Age: The Postwar Poetry and Painting of William Carlos Williams and Jackson Pollock.'' Boundary 2, Vol. 10 No. 3 (spring, 1982): 109-123
Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Directions Books, 1995.

A great resource for looking at art on the web is Keep in mind that the pictures can be quite large and take a while to download. Another great resource is, which catalogues works wherever they are on the web, and provides links.

This short paper was written for the Williams segment of a class on Williams, Moore, and Stevens.