William Carlos Williams, Paterson (New Directions, 1963)
[originally posted 4Nov2002]
To hear the staff at New Directions tell it, Paterson is the be-all and end-all of the American long poem; there is no work being done today that is not influenced in some way by Williams’ milestone of American verse. And there may be some truth in that statement, but it neglects to address the question of whether Paterson is, in fact, a good poem; after all, the album title tells us ten million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. Well, guess what, folks? Ten million Elvis fans ARE wrong.
Paterson is the magnum opus of a man who forgot that one of the ways that poets are divided are those who are obsessed with the art of poesy, and those obsessed with its craft. Ninety-five percent or so of modern poets are of the “art” school, and few pay any attention to craft at all, which is why there is so much painfully bad high-school-angst poetry in the world. Maybe one percent know how to balance the art and the craft, and from that one percent come the finest poets in the English, or in any, language, folks like Ira Sadoff, David St. John, and Debra Allbery. The rest are of the “craft” school, and get so wrapped up in the construction that they forget the one great rule, that poetry is language elevated. Paterson is a testament to craft, and it forsakes art altogether.
This was not an unconscious thing. Williams was a staunch proponent of the idea that the way to make poetry more accessible to the people was to try and fit the natural rhythm and flow of human speech into the rhythms of poetry, be they strict forms or the internal rhythms of free verse; Williams dips into both here, and more often than not he’s trying to fit the squarest of pegs into the roundest of holes. He also throws in long prose passages that, while they contribute to a greater understanding of Paterson as Williams sees it, are not poetry in any sense of the word.
All that said, the collection approaches brilliance more times than it misses the mark. There are snippets where Williams’ writing is so powerful as to take the breath away, where he approaches the genius of the early years of his career, and the stuff sounds just as good as “The Red Wheel-Barrow” or “This Is Just to Say.” In other words, it would have made a great collection of poems, but as one long piece, it falls somewhat short.
If nothing else, it does state the greatest rule of poetry as succinctly as never before or since: “no ideas but in things.” If only Williams had listened to himself just a tad more. ***