[(essay date 1986) In the following essay, Dickie discusses Paterson as a major long poem in which Williams combines his own inventive narrative strategies with those used by Ezra Pound in The Cantos and Hart Crane in The Bridge.]
If Hart Crane had the ending of a poem for which he could imagine no beginning, it may be said of William Carlos Williams that he worked altogether in the other direction. Early in Williams’ career, Wallace Stevens detected this tendency for beginnings and suggested that he remedy it since, he wrote to Williams, “to fidget with points of view leads always to new beginnings and incessant new beginnings lead to sterility” (SE 12). Williams contested Stevens’ point in his “Prologue to Kora in Hell”, arguing instead that his “brokenness” of composition and the “instability” of his improvisations made him “master of a certain weapon which he could possess himself of in no other way” and provided him with “that attenuated power which draws perhaps many broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being” (SE 14).
Williams’ work is marked by incessant new beginnings because for him, as he claims in The Great American Novel, “everything exists from the beginning” (GAN 9), but even more than that, each beginning in his poetry begot a new beginning.1 His faith in beginnings is established in the preface to Paterson, published with “Book I” in 1946 and thus antedating the ending of the full Paterson by more than a decade. This passage may be a parodic reference to Four Quartets, but it does signify Williams’ interest in beginnings. He writes: For the beginning is assuredly the end—since we know nothing, pure and simple, beyond our own complexities. (P [Paterson] 3)
This confident beginning would appear to offer every opportunity for an extended composition. Yet, when the beginning is assuredly the end, the long poem will appear redundant, cancelled rather than anticipated by this opening. The determinism of the beginning is as limiting as Crane’s overdetermined ending, and Williams, like Crane, found himself almost immediately at odds with it. He was to discover that the end would reveal complexities unknown to the beginning, but he moved into the composition of a long poem with other hopes. He wanted the long form to experiment with form, to test the fullness of being that could be created from a broken construction. The short poem had only a limited charge. Like every other writer of long poems, Williams wanted more. His problem was how to get more when he imagined he had everything from the beginning.
Nonetheless, the beginning of this long poem is not easy to locate. Paterson may begin in the delineaments of the giants that open “Paterson I”, or in the preface to that poem (which identifies beginning as end), or in the headnote which announces the program, or in the author’s note which lays out the overall scheme of the poem. Or, it may begin in earlier...