Sunday, November 04, 2007

WCW Paterson and Gender as a Studio Where Poetry Happens

It’s almost a forbidden delight the syllabus for the Dickinson and Media class. We’re reading all of the long poems that people talk about and reference, but often have not read in their entirety. Last week, The Bridge by Hart Crane. This week, Paterson by William Carlos Williams. Next week, H.D.’s Helen in Egypt.

Paterson is a long poem in five parts published by Williams from 1946 through 1958. He had notes for a sixth installment at the time of his death in 1961. This is not the Williams that I am used to encountering: controlled, restrained, in charge of each word and each line with what seems like complete precision. That is the Williams of anthologies, and, to some degree, I think, his Collected Poems. Paterson is less crafted, I think; it reflects more of the workings of Williams’ mind as a poet.

I’m drawn to the letters that intersperse this text of Paterson. In particular the letters from Marcia Nardi to WCW. He includes a long letter from her at the conclusion of the second book. The letter is vitriolic. Nardi begins, “My attitude toward woman’s wretched position in society and my ideas about all the changes necessary there, were interesting to you, weren’t they, in so far as they made for literature?” And continues at great length. The inclusion of this letter from Nardi to WCW fascinates me because of the other dynamics of male/female relations that WCW explores throughout the text.

Prior to the final Nardi letter, WCW writes, “Love is no comforter, rather a nail in the / skull // reversed in the mirror of its / own squalor” (p. 81). The next pages are a dialogue between He (presumably Paterson, the man) and a woman (possibly Nardi, though perhaps everywoman) and it concludes “He all but falls” and then quickly moves to the woman “Marry us! Marry us!/Or! be dragged down, dragged/under and lost”. Williams view on relationships between the sexes is dark at best.

In the third book, Williams dialogue with the woman in the poem leads to this line, “You smell/like a whore. I ask you to bathe in my/opinions, the astonishing virtue of your/lost body (I said).” The contrast of telling the woman that she smells like a whore with asking her to bathe not in water to remove the smell, but in his opinions is shocking and powerful, leading me to a pretty derisive view of Paterson, and possibly by extension Williams. This passage continues with a dialogue about marriage. “--and marry only to destroy, in private, in/their privacy only to destroy, to hide”; “Death will be too late to bring us aid,” and then, “The riddle of a man and a woman // For what is there but love, that stares death/in the eye, love, begetting marriage --/not infamy, not death.” The union between a man and a woman is a vexed state for Williams in Paterson, not something to be celebrated, but something to be flogged and angrily examined.

Nardi’s letter is, I think, a screed against Williams’ sexism. She recounts his interest in her for his purposes and not to help her; she expresses disappointment and anger about him not recommending her for jobs. I wonder what WCW thought was in including it - to expose her as a harpy? to illuminate why he wouldn’t help her? Did they have a long correspondence and a productive relationship? What was Nardi’s response to her letters in Paterson?

All of this was mulling through my mind until I reached the fifth book of Paterson which is perhaps more bizarre and perplexing from a feminist perspective in trying the read the male/female relationships. Unicorns and satyrs make playful and punning appearances, but so does the “mythic, mannish lesbian.” Williams writes on p. 216,

There is a woman in our town
walks rapidly, flat bellied

in worn slacks upon the street
where I saw her

and continues

An inconspicuous decoration
made of sombre cloth, meant
I think to be a flower, was
pinned flat to her

breast--any woman might have
done the same to
say she was a woman and warn
us of her mood. Otherwise

she was dressed in male attire,
as much as to say to hell

with you.

Williams says she disappears and he regrets that he couldn’t ask her what she was doing in Paterson (as though Paterson was somehow free of the fairer sex fondling her kind?) and was she married and did she have children, “and, most important,/your NAME!” WCW finally notes, “I cannot conceive it/in such a lonely and//intelligent woman.

So it seems there is a lot to unpack here in Paterson. I am not surprised at all that DuPlessis didn’t pursue her writing about WCW - even as he remains significant to her.

The other thing that I’ve been mulling from reading Paterson and Blue Studios together is what brings a poet to the scope of ambition, prowess, and possibly bravado to conceive, write, revise and publish a poem of the proportion of Paterson and The Bridge? (Though I will confess, I think I can see The Bridge because it reads more as a book of poetry as I understand it today whereas Paterson just feels so large and ambitious and exciting in a similar way to DuPlessis’ project, Drafts.) Is Paterson an epic poem? I think not in the traditional way that we think of epics, but what do we call such a large and ambitious project? And how does one mobilize the resources (mental, verbal, emotional) and sustain them to write such a thing?

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