Paterson: Poem as Rhizome

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Author: Alba Newmann
Editor: Michelle Lee
From: Poetry Criticism(Vol. 109)
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,766 words

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[(essay date spring 2006) In the following essay, Newmann analyzes Williams's Paterson as an enactment of many of the linguistic and epistemological themes presented in the 1987 work A Thousand Plateaus by French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.]

A book has neither object nor subject; it is made of variously formed matters, and very different dates and speeds. ... There is no difference between what a book talks about and how it is made. (3)The rhizome is ... a map and not a tracing. ... What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. (12)--A Thousand Plateaus, G. Deleuze and F. Guattari

The significance of place, and of the American scene in particular, is one of the features by which William Carlos Williams distinguished his work from that of his expatriate contemporaries. Advocating the poetic value of the American experience and idiom, Williams rejected Eliot's, and even Pound's, classicism and Eurocentrism and grounded his work in the particulars of his native New Jersey. While the setting for a piece like Eliot's "J. Alfred Prufrock" remains ambiguous (are these the smoky, half-deserted streets of St. Louis or London?), Williams's Paterson requires that poem and place be one. He asserts, within Paterson's first few pages, that ideas and things are inextricably linked: the ideas of the American city and the American experience must reside within the city-as-thing. Paterson cannot exist as some vague semblance of city; it must be made of Paterson itself. As one speaker in Book III says:

of this, make it of this, this this, this, this, this. (P [Paterson] 141)

Williams was born and raised in Rutherford, New Jersey, neighboring Paterson; he resided there, practicing medicine, throughout his adult life. Although the first volume of Paterson was not published until 1946, as early as 1926 Williams had begun thinking about the city as poetic material. In that year, he wrote a poem called "Paterson," elements of which he would eventually integrate into his long work. He later explained, in a series of interviews, that the scale of the city (neither as large as New York, nor as small as Rutherford), the richness of its history, and the presence of the Passaic River and Falls influenced his choice of locale (IWWP [I Wanted to Write a Poem: The Autobiography of The Works of a Poet] 72-3).

Many have used Williams's emphasis on the American scene to define his ideal of "contact." And, indeed, in the manifesto written for the first issue of the "little magazine" bearing that name, Williams explains: "For native work in verse, fiction, criticism or whatever is written we mean to maintain a place, insisting on that which we have not found insisted upon before, the essential contact between words and the locality that breeds them, in this case America" (Contact 1). This may not, however, adequately express the full extent of what "contact" means...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420100924