Wednesday, September 02, 2020

On WCW’s Paterson, Book Six

William Carlos Williams’s brief notes for Book Six of Paterson have fascinated me, with that feeling of “what if” — what would he have done here had he lived to write it?  Someone must have analyzed this material more extensively.  But to me, it lends a sense of the tragic to the poem, yet then how could such a poem not be tragic (loosely speaking) if it could only be ended by death, the long poem that could go on and on until, to paraphrase Paul Valéry, something puts a stop to it?  The life-work that becomes a death-stopped work.

WCW ended Book Five with this passage:
We know nothing and can know nothing    .
                              but
the dance, to dance to a measure
contrapuntally,
                 Satyrically, the tragic foot.
                      (p. 239 of the 1963 New Directions paperback edition)

Contrapuntally means, obviously, using the counterpoint, or specifically in music using numerous voices that are independent of each other but related through the harmony, which is also a good metaphor for at least some of his technique in Paterson, where disparate types of materials are juxtaposed within the bigger poem.  That is a technical explanation, but it is the fact of the dance that is elevated to the highest importance; it is finally all we can know, moving our bodies in rhythm (or contrapuntally to the rhythm, or to each other?) until we can no longer.  And it is a wild satyr’s dance at that, out of Greek tragedy.  Or tragic like the Native Americans dancing the Kinte Kaye in the face of imminent death (Book Three), or like Vercingetorix taking on the Roman Legions (also Book Three).

Or tragic like Williams himself in old age beginning Book Six, typing out fragments and notes even though he was half-paralyzed by stroke — still taking upon himself the task of wrangling with language: “Words are the burden of poems, poems are made of words” (243).  Thinking of the actual effects of his prescribed medication, he writes in Book Six, “Dance, dance! loosen your limbs from that art which holds you faster than the drugs which hold you faster — dandelion on my bedroom wall” (244).  And there suddenly is as imagist an image as you could ever find.  It’s no accident, no random detail, that Li Po also appears — Li Po, the original imagist (for all intents and purposes), “a Chinese poet who / drowned embracing the reflection of the moon in the river” (244).  Another poet of the tragic foot.

There is more historical material, the concern with American history, a lost America that obviously never existed in its “wondrous” form (Hamilton . . . “founding the country which was  to / increase to be the wonder of the world / in its day” [245] — but not in ours, not in ours, sadly, if even then).  The very last lines (and these in WCW’s triadic line form) make up a troubling and harsh portrait of two women, Irish immigrants, one who has been abused and sold by her father into the sex trade, and her friend Mrs. Carmody “who could tell a story / when she’d a bit taken” (246).  The old Irish stereotype perhaps of drinking and talk, but what is the gift of the gab if not poetry?  WCW was fascinated with these people, the desperate immigrants, despite his own sexism, racism, you name it.  Somehow they were still America for him.  And they are tragic too.

So Williams dies and only then is there an end to Paterson.  But even this statement is provisional in a way.  The unfinished character of the Book Six notes creates the appearance that the poem is moving ever on, as if it is still being worked on in the very moment.  It is stopped, or suspended, in an instant of continuation (like a line enjambed, but with nothing following) — in the midst of the dance and then someone presses pause, and


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