the animal, walking, the city:
The interpenetration of thought and body in William Carlos Williams’ Paterson
It has as little to do with the soul as with ermine robes or graveyards. It is not noble, sad, funny. It is poetry. It is free. It is escapeless. It goes where it will. It is in danger; escapes if it can. --W.C.W.
Having been a painter as well as a poet, William Carlos Williams uses his page as a canvas to be filled; in viewing and reading his poems, one recognizes immediately and throughout that Williams’ space and word are of an order and pace that disorient and force the reader’s mind and body to participate and respond to the poem’s intention as if the reader her/himself is the intention. That is, Williams’ poems present the reader with an object in its surrounding; the poem is to show the thing as itself acting upon its own will. In his essay “Marianne Moore”, Williams writes
The apple is left there, suspended. One is not made to feel that as an apple it has anything particularly to do with poetry or that as such it needs special treatment; one goes on. Because of this, the direct object does seem unaffected. It seems as free from the smears of mystery, as pliant, as “natural” as Venus on the wave. (388)
Here, Williams speaks of the apple as “suspended” and “pliant”, thus seeing “apple” as still in and of itself; this experience of the apple as “pliant” and “natural” allows the object its own existence as a self and therefore a sort of consciousness as a being belonging to an environment and having relation to that environment. In Williams’ own work, he enters the objects if not at least the objects’ environments; the speaker becomes the scene’s space and time and objects within.
As his poems’ objects are modes of consciousness capable of making
motion/change, Williams recognizes that these motions must show themselves
within the lines and spaces of a page’s movement. Writing of
there is a world,
he rumbled, subject to my incursions
(to me) at rest,
which I approach
The scene’s the Park
upon the rock,
female to the city
--upon whose body Paterson instructs his thoughts
a Sunday afternoon!
--and goes by the footpath to the cliff (counting:
the proof) . . . . (43)
Just to look at this poem is to see motion occurring: the lines walk out as legs across space then center and group up then walk out again. The poem progresses through space in a forward (right across the page) and energetic (interrupting itself, including conversations, letters, etc. of other within and outside the scene of the Park on Sunday) fashion. For the eye alone there is a determined rhythm and density to the poem’s movement; to read it aloud is to match one’s breath to the length of line and density of text and gaps between, thus one begins to breath as the poem moves across and down and through the pages. Thus the reader’s body has entered the consciousness of the speaker’s moment and movement: the speaker is walking in the park, taking strides, inhaling/exhaling, and the reader’s eye and breath and reading pace are synchronized to that motion. The reader is now the moving animal.
The poem’s motion, though, occurs also within the motion of thought, of the brain moving from one thought/occurrence/observation to the next. Williams’ use of space around lines and stanzas gives the mind and the eye pause; the mind and eye are still moving and operating across/ through the white space, but they are clearing or condensing or quieting or preparing for the next movement of thought:
Thickets gather about groups of squat sand-pine,
All but from bare rock . .
--a scattering of man-high cedars (sharp cones),
--roots, for the most part, writhing
upon the surface
(so close are we to ruin every
searching the punk-dry rot
The body is tilted forward from the basic standing
position and the weight . . . Various muscles, aided .
Despite my having said that I’d never write to you again, I do so
now because I find, with the passing of time, that the outcome of
my failure with you has been the complete damming up of all my
creative capacities in a particularly disastrous manner such as I
have never before experienced. . . . (45)
In the course of a few full gaits, Williams has given the reader the speaker/walker’s motion of body and motion of mind. As the speaker walks, he takes notice of his surroundings (thickets, cedars, sumac, (sharp cones)), reminds himself that he is Walking --, thinks consciously of what is it for a body to make the walking motion, and recalls a letter he has written to someone concerning their ignoring the content of his letters. The mind too is walking. Having entered and experienced the walker’s consciousness of self and surroundings, Williams’ and his readers’ bodies (eye and breath) and minds (experience of another’s thoughts and paces and choices) have been/experienced the animal and its motion.
Williams’ rhythm and focus as embodied in his white space, varying line lengths and densities of text evince the mind of a painter: there is a sense of an arrangement of space and a perception of size and distance. As a viewer’s eye traverses the bright spots, angles and lines, foreground and background, atmospheric space, and shapes of a painting, so too does a reader’s eye travel Williams’ lines, blocks, spaces, and breaks. From the idea of moving through a presented motion (as through a painting or a poem) the concern of order of occurrence or observance arises. Just as the movement of the speaker’s mind while walking is not a linear motion, Williams’ poems occur and are experienced in a sometimes disorienting order of which the eye and mind must make themselves aware of as the poem progresses.
Williams wrote Paterson in an effort to give/experience “the resemblance
between the mind of modern man and a city” , “to use the multiple facets which
a city presented as representatives for comparable facts of contemporary
thought thus able to objectify the man himself as we know him and love him and
hate him” (Paterson xiii). Seeing the sound of “the
Williams recognizes dependency between thoughts/things in aspects other than the visual appearance and pace of a page. Such an attention to the relationships between a thing and its surrounding world is shown in the minute motion between two words. To return to Book II of Paterson:
. . . Various muscles, aided.
Despite my having said . . . . (45)
Here, the aid of the muscles allows the leap to the next
word “despite” which opens into a letter which Williams mind has just wandered
onto in thought about the body’s position while walking. There is no direct
connection of logic between the body while walking and some letter in a box in
Williams’ desk, but that the two animals (the consciousness of walking and the
consciousness of the letter) exist in the same environment. Discussing
dependency and the power between subject and object, Charles Altieri writes, “The mind acts, not by insisting on its own
separateness, but by fully being ‘there’: by dwelling on, depending on, the
objects that depend on it. And words themselves take on the same quality,
because each part of speech reveals its capacity to transfer force”
(232-233). Just as
Williams prefaces the first book of
The whole of
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring
animate a thousand automatons
. . . .
--Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the house
and the cylindrical trees (6)
peaceful of all
possibility. Paterson is the land and Paterson is the man and they are
listening to one another, dreaming and being other and all sounds and language
and scenes and people and their stories. Paterson is the land and Paterson is
the man and Paterson is the motion and the bodies and stops between.
a man (since I am a man) who dives from cliffs and the edges of waterfalls, to his death—finally. But for all that he is a woman (since I am not a woman) who is the cliff and the waterfall, She spreads protecting fingers about him as he plummets to his conclusions to keep the winds from blowing him out of his path. But he escapes, in the end, as I have said. (Paterson 279)
So the poem becomes the body of the man in the body of the land-woman as he disintegrates into her and he-she push forth flowers through the rocks, flowers with a more suitable language for what is happening, happens, happened to man and land. Thus we have bodies into other bodies, transmutations of language and sound and letter and thought and seeing and recording and being. A flowering from the dead and from the living and from the word and sound.
As a walking, as a swaying, as a rising/falling, Williams’ poems show a motion of body and mind both in the visual arrangement of his work on the page and in the words’ show of thought/experience much akin to a painter’s composition—a motion of revealing what is already there. Williams writes, “if a thought presents itself the force moves through it easily and completely: so the thought also has revealed the ‘thing’—that is all. The thought is used exactly as the apple” (393). And so, Williams writes the body and mind of the apple: he begins as if he’s about to be bitten into and gives a “necessary appearance of disorder in all immediacy” (384). That is, the apple is a singular and capable consciousness of possibility. As are oranges, as are asphodel, as is a man, as –
Altieri, Charles. “Modes of Abstraction in Modernist Poetry”. Painterly
Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry.
-----. “Why Stevens Must be Abstract”. Painterly
Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry.
Singer, Linda. “Merleau-Ponty
on the Concept of Style”. The Merleau-Ponty
Aesthetics Reader: Philosophy and Painting,
ed. Galen A. Johnson.
Williams, William Carlos.
-----. “Marianne Moore”. The William
Carlos Williams Reader, ed. M. L. Rosenthal.