[(essay date 2007) In the following essay, Templeton focuses on the inclusion of American poet Marcia Nardi’s letters in Paterson, noting that previous scholars believed they served to emphasize the opposition between man and woman. Templeton, however, asserts that Williams incorporates the correspondence to “embody the force of disruption in the poem and challenge the value of such binaries and assumptions.”]
It is in the continual and violent refreshing of the idea that love and good writing have their security.William Carlos Williams, “Prologue” to Kora in Hell
The Cress letters are perhaps the most provocative and polarizing elements of Williams’s entire five-part epic poem, Paterson.1 Since the publication of “Book Two” in 1948, critics and casual readers alike have puzzled over their inclusion in the poem. Initially, Williams’s readers wondered where the letters came from and who wrote them, and these questions led to more queries about why Williams had quoted the letters at such length in Paterson (one notable excerpt comprises several single-spaced pages). It was only much later that critics began to consider their content, their meaning and their relationship to the rest of the poem.2 In Williams studies, the resulting critical debate surrounding the letters and their author Marcia Nardi can be broken down into a fairly standard “He Said, She Said” argument. In what follows, after briefly outlining this debate, I want to think more about Cress and her role in the poem both thematically and formally.
Ultimately, I want to suggest that current critical understandings of Paterson are based on an outdated and inaccurate model of authorship. In other words, thinking about Williams as the traditional “solitary genius” poet, to borrow a phrase coined by Jack Stillinger (1991), simply doesn’t work.3 Instead of an individual process of introversion, for Williams authorship worked according to a different model: writing was a communal endeavor not an isolated, single-handed effort. It incorporated multiple voices and influences, and indeed he considered these external agents to be essential elements of the creative process. In fact, his critical writings reveal that Dr. Williams thought of this artistic practice in much the same way that he thought about human conception and reproduction. This is to say that both instances involve intimate interactions between men and women, and the entity that is created, whether art or human life, then will take on a life of its own and become much more than just a sum of its parts. These ideas about the creative process will, I hope, allow us to account for previously irreconcilable differences posed by Nardi and her literary counterpart Cress.
For his part of the critical debate surrounding Cress and her role in the poem, Williams claimed, in a letter of August 21, 1951 to Robert D. Pepper, to have incorporated excerpts into Paterson from the lengthy and acerbic letter that Nardi wrote to him sometime during April 1943 because
[i]t is, as you see, an attack, a personal attack upon me by a woman....