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Long poem by William Carlos Williams, divided into five Books published in 1946, 1948, 1949, 1951, and 1958. Fragments of the incomplete Book Six were published posthumously (1963) as an appendix to the collection of the first five parts.

Written in the “variable foot” of Williams's free verse, the work incorporates prose passages from historical documents, newspaper accounts, geological surveys, literary texts, and personal letters ranging from one by an anonymous semi-literate black man to those by Edward Dahlberg, Alan Ginsberg, and Ezra Pound, all reinforcing the poem's themes.

The Author's Note declares: “a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody—if imaginatively conceived—any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions.”

Using the city of Paterson on the Passaic River near his hometown of Rutherford, N. J., as subject so as to bring forth the universal from a local setting (“there are no ideas but in things”), the poem presents local history and the natural scene (particularly the Falls and Garrett Mountain) as well as the consciousness of a gigantic, mythic man (Paterson) and of the author, poet and doctor. Book One (“The Delineaments of the Giants”) mythologizes “the elemental character of the place”: the city (a masculine force), the landscape (a feminine principle), and the vital, unifying river. Book Two (“Sunday in the Park”), concerned with “modern replicas,” meditates on failures in communication through language, religion, economics, and sex, but suggests redemption through art, imagination, and memory. Book Three (“The Library”) moves from the previous section's “confused uproar” of the Falls to find that “books will give rest sometimes,” a sanctuary for “dead men's dreams,” but the past represents only desolation, destruction, and death, and “I must find my meaning and lay it, white, beside the sliding water.” Book Four (“The Run to the Sea”) treats the polluted river below the Falls in terms of human corruption by modern civilization, while recognizing innovations in science, economics, and language, but finally the identity of the river is lost in the sea, although the individual man (Paterson) survives and strides inland to begin again. Book Five (untitled but dedicated to Toulouse-Lautrec) is like a separate work, an oblique commentary on the poem by an aged poet from a point of view more international and universal than local.

Subjects: Literature

Reference entries

William Carlos Williams (1883—1963) American poet, essayist, novelist, and short-story writer