The Use of Prose in Paterson

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Author: Ralph Nash
Editors: Roger Matuz and Cathy Falk
Date: 1992
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,907 words

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[The essay excerpted below was originally published in Perspective, Vol. 4 (1953).]

The real subject here is that prose to which Williams calls attention by differentiating type. Paterson does contain obvious prose that is undifferentiated from the surrounding verse: the sermon of Klaus Ehrens, the conversation with old Henry, the fragmentary talk of Corydon and Phyllis, the letters from Pound , an old man's reminiscences of early Paterson. But most of the direct prose is acknowledged with italics or small type, is kept in its place, apart from the main flow of the poetry. This method is something of an innovation in technique; no major, or even relatively successful, poem has previously explored its possibilities. So the kinds of prose in Paterson, and their effects, have a general interest in relation to the developments of poetic technique as well as the specific interest of their contributions to the success of the single poem. This sketch will try to abstract from the poem some classification of the types of prose used and to suggest some of the effects that must be reckoned with.

Three major classes of prose can be fairly well separated. There are newspaper clippings and factual data, directly transcribed; there are Williams' own summaries of historical data, excerpted from old newspapers, local histories, etc.; and there are the personal letters. These are the types (not always easily distinguished) that recur most often. If profitable, classification and subdivision could be carried further. For example, there seem to be some transcriptions from the doctor's notebooks, and here and there a passage that sounds more like the record of a conversation than like a written letter. And for exact subdivision there are many problems. Most of the letters are surely authentic, but Phyllis' are surely fictional, and the letter about Musty I suspect is the poet's artifact. The account of Sam Patch's career evidently combines authorial summary with direct transcription of an eyewitness account; and the survey of Hamilton's plans for a National Manufactory may be direct transcription or summary or both, while the counterpoint indictment of Federal Reserve Banks might be from Williams himself, or from Pound or some other source. But these questions of fact remain minor. Most of the prose involves the use of personal letters, direct transcription of material from newspapers and books (usually local history), or authorial summary of such material.

This classification by source can be supplemented with a temporal classification that may seem to affect more directly the function of the prose within the poem. That is, the prose of Contemporary Fact and the prose of Historical Fact. Both classes, contemporary and historical, are examples of "invention" in the classical sense—the discovery of material appropriate to the meaning and the decorum of the poem.

The letters, which make up most of the prose of contemporary fact, supply corroborations of the poet's insight into contemporary obsessions and confusions. Williams receives a letter that speaks of a "kind of blockage, exiling one's self from one's...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100000862