Paterson: Revised Edition by William Carlos Williams, prepared by Christopher MacGowan (New York: New Directions, 1992; originally published from 1946-1958. 320 pp)

Born in Rutherford, New Jersey, William Carlos Williams studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. While his primary occupation was a family doctor, William Carlos Williams had a successful secondary career as a poet. Williams won the first National Book Award for Poetry and was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He died in 1963.

Questioning Humanity

A striking quality of much thought seems to surround the nature of humanity. Who are we? Why do we exist? What does life mean? Poets, lyricists, theologians, philosophers—they’ve all considered these questions from a myriad of angles. But isn’t it fascinating how some truisms consistently flow from these deeper questions?

We hear, “No man is an island,” a phrase first penned by John Donne almost 400 years ago. Despite its age, the phrase rings true.

Consider, “It takes a village to raise a child,” an African proverb. The statement reinforces the value of community and the importance of working together. Nobody is alone and no one will prosper without the help of others.

Given these metaphors, I find William Carlos Williams’ long-form poem, Paterson, a thrilling treatise on the nature of humanity through the metaphor of the city.

Much like John Donne’s phrase and the African proverb, Williams’ core premise resides in the complexity of people and how they need each other to work toward their goals. In short, he suggests man is a city.

The Many Facets of a City

Paterson, in its simplest terms, follows the course of the Passaic River as it flows through Paterson, the third most populous city in New Jersey. Whether on the river, in a park, or at a library, Williams pauses in certain places to ponder the meaning of humans and their relationship to the cities they create.

In all instances though, Williams returns to the city as his central metaphor.

“Yet there is
no return : rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months’ wonder, the city
the man, and identity—it can’t be
otherwise—an
interpenetration, both ways” (4).

Interposed with poetic verse, Williams includes various bits of prose. Some prose simply sets up the next lines of poetry. Often Williams describes a harrowing scene from the history of Paterson, before pondering the event in poetic terms, like this poetic response to a spurned lover where Williams describes,

“Love is no comforter, rather a nail in the skull” (81).

Somewhere between Poetry and Prose

As much as I like Williams’ poetry, I thoroughly enjoy the times when he slides between prose and poetry. Some of the most interesting parts of Paterson sit somewhere between poetry and prose. Consider this beautiful sentence written in a “prose” section:

“It is dangerous to leave written that which is badly written. A chance word, upon paper, may destroy the world” (129).

Piquant words such as these raise intriguing questions behind the meaning of poetry. Does it need to rhyme or have particular rhythm? Can poetry be poetry provided it is beautiful or causes the reader to consider themes at a deeper level?

Interestingly, Williams answers these questions with a poem:

“Q. Mr. Williams, can you tell me, simply, what poetry is?

A. Well  .               .               .               I would say that poetry is language charged with emotion. It’s words, rhythmically organized            .               .               .               A poem is a complete little universe. It exists separately. Any poem that has worth expresses the whole life of the poet. It gives a view of what the poet is” (221).

After the questioner provides an E.E. Cummings poem as an example of poetry and Williams responds saying it is not poetry. The questioner counters with a poem written by Williams himself.

“Q. You get no meaning? But here’s part of a poem you yourself have written:  .               .               .               ‘2 partridges/     2 mallard ducks/  a Dungeness crab/          24 hours out/     of the Pacific/    and 2 live-frozen/            trout/    from Denmark  .                .               .’ Now, that sounds just like a fashionable grocery list!

A. It is a fashionable grocery list” (222).

An Apt Metaphor

In short, poetry can be anything provided you get meaning from it—even a grocery list. Paterson, separated into 5 books, dives into the construction of a city, the lives of people within a city, and the nature of poetry.

In all of these things, Williams considers the city an apt metaphor for the mind of humanity in all its variables. We all question what life means at some point and poets often times phrase our thinking in remarkable ways. If no man is an island, and it takes a village to raise a child, then certainly a man is a city.

If you like poetry at all, go read Paterson by William Carlos Williams.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

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