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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 Moore’s rhythm, Williams states, “it does not interfere with her progress; it is the movement of the animal, it does not put itself first and ask the other to follow” (389). To speak of rhythm as the movement of the animal allows again the object (that is the subject) of a poem both a capability of motion as well as a will and style of motion that is natural to the object. Thus, Williams’ poems allow the reader to experience the motion of an object as that specific object in that object’s environment: the reader in reading a poem embodies the consciousness of the object and sees and moves through the poem’s language and line and order of occurrence as the given consciousness moves in its body in its surroundings. In Book II of Paterson, Sunday in the Park, Williams’ subject/speaker begins:



                                                outside myself

                                                                                    there is a world,

            he rumbled, subject to my incursions

            --a world


                                                (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



                                    --late spring,

                        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:


            Walking   --


                             Thickets gather about groups of squat sand-pine,

                             All but from bare rock     .     .


                             --a scattering of man-high cedars (sharp cones),

                             antlered sumac


                             --roots, for the most part, writhing

                             upon the surface

                                                        (so close are we to ruin every


                                    searching the punk-dry rot



            Walking   --


              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 Passaic Falls” in the city of Paterson as a “language which we were and are seeking and my search . . . became to struggle to interpret and use this language” (xiv).  Working along the idea of writing/being/experiencing the apple (or the flower, or the -- ) as a consciousness and thus a being of motion and will, Williams moves through his poem as river, as more than several citizens, as correspondence, as excerpted texts of outside (other) minds, as “all that any one man can achieve in a lifetime” (xiv). In choosing Paterson as both a man and his surrounding city, Williams poem becomes a canvas or field through which the subject is the energy between the foreground and background. Writing of the painter’s vision and manner of communicating what he (the painter) sees, Linda Singer states, “He is concerned not only with the aspects of vision where things reveal themselves as what they are, but also with the surrounding field, and the interaction of forces which help constitute the thing’s appearance” (237). In this way, Williams gives us Paterson the man as he exists/interacts with Paterson the city, showing through space and varied densities of text that Paterson is experiencing himself as a city and the city as himself, that the man and the city pace and hold one another. Neither the foreground or the background overrules or decides; there is dependency between the subject and object, between others.


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 Paterson’s thought and motion are dependent upon his surroundings, so too are each of Williams’ words, each of them being a trigger for movement to the next step and breath across land and mind.


That Paterson is a man in/and the city makes it a book of travel in that the poet/speaker/reader must consider end embody modes of motion. Paterson is also a quest—a search for self in other, for other in the self, and also a search for the language that can fulfill the energy and relationship between the two.  In speaking of the poet and his measure of the world, Altieri states, “the poet pursues the more circuitous, dialectical route of first making that otherness a way of realizing his own difference, his own claim to individual spiritual identity, then of positing that difference in a such a way that it promises to yield others a sense of similar orientations in their imaginative investments” (327).  In reading Paterson, one experiences the self as an other: the reader enters the other (the speaker) and traverses other’s landscape in other’s motion and pace.  The walk that the reader is on, though, is the speaker’s attempt to make his selfness (which is other to others) a self on the page; in order for the speaker (the poet) to fully realize himself for others, he must look at himself in terms of other. That is, the poet/speaker must look at himself while still being himself. Thus the poem we receive is the motion of Paterson the man through Paterson the city that is a still and a moving land that holds other moving bodies that are contemplating other others as they circumnavigate the city that is all and none of them.


Williams prefaces the first book of Paterson in a style of conjuring/opening into the telling voice in quest to give man and city as “interpenetration, both way. Rolling/” (4) and to do so by observing/embodying/experiencing the general and the particular and the energies, the jumps between and across and through each moment/movement of thought and body. This “interpenetration” is the body of Paterson, man and city. That a man can walk through a city and think of his motion—of each part, of each muscle’s aid—and think of letters he’s received and think of the file-sharp grass and think of what a poem is and should be shows a bleeding in of  a man’s surrounding, that he/she is dependent upon his/her place. But Paterson is also a man bleeding into his surrounding land: a man is a set of motions in the city that is made of motions.


The whole of Paterson is travel through a city as a wind and a river would: these are fluid and dynamic bodies—they swerve, swell, wane, swallow, calm, and turn as all bodies on, above, in earth combined.  Williams enters the lived and living (the recorded history and the present and will-be people of Paterson) as a winding mind of the land (the water through the soil body of Paterson).  The poet’s process and product are symbiotic bodies and flows in this poem: the reader sees as the poet sees and writes and gets bored or distracted as a person walking sees and looks and takes closer notice and ponders and walks on and


            Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls

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)


The scene opens          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. Paterson is


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 –


Works Cited


Altieri, Charles. “Modes of Abstraction in Modernist Poetry”.  Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American Poetry. Cambridge University Press, 1989.


-----. “Why Stevens Must be Abstract”. Painterly Abstraction in Modernist American  Poetry. Cambridge University press, 1989.


Singer, Linda. “Merleau-Ponty on the Concept of Style”. The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics  Reader: Philosophy and Painting, ed. Galen A. Johnson. Evanston: Northwestern  UP, 1993.


Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1963.


-----. “Marianne Moore”. The William Carlos Williams Reader, ed. M. L. Rosenthal. New York: New Directions, 1965.

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