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The Metropoetics of Paterson

From: William Carlos Williams Review
Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 121-135 | 10.1353/wcw.2009.0024

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Paterson (1946-61) is one of the great metrotexts in American poetry. Responding synthetically and antithetically to the urban poems that preceded it, Paterson initiated new spaces for the city texts of the future to inhabit. In this article, we attempt to outline what Patricia Yeager would call a "metropoetics" of Williams's epic, "a set of algorithms for mapping the literature of the city" (10). To do so, we focus on three overlapping dimensions of the poem: its intertextuality, its figuration, and its distinctive formal arrangements. We begin by comparing key rhetorical figures in Paterson to their analogues in two precursory urban texts: Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and Hart Crane's The Bridge (1930). We then consider Paterson's complex form in relation to a clutch of contemporary urban texts: John Edgar Wideman's novel Philadelphia Fire (1990), Mike Davis's historiographical studies City of Quartz (1990) and Ecology of Fear (1998), Karen Yamashita's novel Tropic of Orange (1997), and Lorna Dee Cervantes's poems "Son: Book I" and "I. Line of the Giant" (2006).

Paterson and the other urban texts exhibit striking correspondences, condensations, and interdependencies. Each constructs verbal spaces that evoke, yet remain separate from, the street life of its chosen city. Each provides tropes for understanding its city's spatial practices, discursive communities, and differential power relations. Yet the texts resist and challenge each other as well. Each embeds the signs of the culture that produced it, the specifics of the city it evokes, and the social and aesthetic identifications of the writer who composed it. If Eliot proposes London as a city of stony rubbish, and Davis portrays Los Angeles as a city of quartz, Williams conceptualizes Paterson as a city of sand—a site neither ruined nor monolithic but atomized, permeable, and shifting. Taken together, this series of metrotexts, with Paterson as their nexus, suggests a range of possibilities inherent in the poetics of the modern and postmodern Anglo-American city.

If The Bridge responded to The Waste Land, then Paterson responded to both poems, echoing them and in the process swerving from them and correcting them. The medieval trope of "transumption," from the Latin "to assume or to adopt," underlies Williams's modus operandi in his poem, which (like H. D.'s Trilogy) arrived late in the modernist era and necessarily reacted to its precursors. Quintilian defined transumption as "a transition from one trope to another" (8.6:37). We suggest that Paterson positioned itself in relation to The Waste Land and The Bridge through its modification of four different but mutually implicated tropes: the document, the dialogue, the walk, and the fall.Paterson introjects the tropes of these predecessors as a way of both acknowledging their crucial presence in its own poetics and of overcoming their potentially inhibiting monumentality. The poem thus negotiates its crisis of belatedness by constructing a new space for itself from the refashioned attributes of its precursors.

Whereas The Waste Land and The Bridge function as urban elegies, poems of lament and consolation, Paterson functions as an urban documentary, recapitulating the colliding utterances of the city's denizens, past and present. The Waste Land disseminates an array of quotations from literature and myth so as to evoke a quest for order and salvation in a modern landscape that announces in every detail the futility of such aims. The quest leads through bewilderment, death, and despair to some glimpses of enlightenment, which are then covered over in more quoted fragments. The Bridge, Crane's intended answer to the gloom of The Waste Land, uses allusions (to such figures as Columbus, Pocahontas, Whitman, and Dickinson) rather than quotations as a means of undertaking an analogous journey leading down through a spiritual nadir in the subway tunnel to an experience of transcendence on the Brooklyn Bridge. Paterson, conversely, does not sink low in order to mount high, in the elegiac tradition of Milton's "Lycidas." Rather, it comes to earth and stays there. It recursively documents a verbal world that conjures the city of Paterson and the poet's presence in it. The poem adapts the quoting method of The Waste Land and the allusive method of...



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