Week One: Williams’ Paterson, Book 2

Sorry this comes a bit late everyone! I promise to be more prompt from now on … Something I’ve been mulling over for awhile:In a letter to John C. Thirlwall, dated June 13, 1955, William Carlos Williams writes: “The passage from Paterson which prompted my solution of the problem of modern verse…is to be found in Book 2, p. 96, beginning with the line: ‘The descent beckons.’ That after having been written several years before, where the implication of the variable foot first struck me” (Selected Letters 334). He then goes on to say that Einstein’s theory of relativity, the new “space-time,” has made necessary the creation of a new poetic form: “When Einstein promulgated the theory of relativity he could not have foreseen its moral and intellectual implication. He could not have foreseen for a certainty its influence on the writing of poetry” (Selected Letters, 335 – 336). In other letters, other essays, Williams also writes of how this new measure—the variable foot—must both sound over time and spatially mark the speech patterns of Americans (ie the poem must rhythmically unfold over time and it must spatially mark this particularly American rhythm). So for Williams, there is no such thing as a poem that is not both temporally and spatially alive. I’m fascinated with the variable foot – with the idea that a bookbound poem, as a precursor to a digital poem, is an object with its own kind of pulsating time and space. But it’s also a particularly elusive concept – just look at this excerpt from Paterson that Williams claims shows us the solution to the problem of modern verse! And what an impressive claim to make….

The descent beckons
        as the ascent beckoned
                Memory is a kind
of accomplishment
        a sort of renewal
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new
        inhabited by hordes
                heretofore unrealized,
of new kinds—
        since their movements
                are towards new objectives
(even though formerly they were abandoned)

There is something about the three-tiered line—strangely enough it’s the spacing!—that drives your eyes and mind on—it insists on a durational reading and insists that you not, as Williams writes only a few pages earlier, “Time Count! Sever and mark time!”

2 thoughts on “Week One: Williams’ Paterson, Book 2”

  1. Is there any audio of what a “variable foot” sounds like, or how it varies? Are there any electronic pieces that you can think of which play with this idea or which might help to illustrate it?
    Immediately, it seems like it might be a useful experiment to read poems, then to listen to archived readings of the poets reading their poems. Here are some links to some archives.
    I just read Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” and then listened to the audio at Poetry Archive. In addition to language changes, the marks of recording and archiving technology add layers of time to the piece.
    Audio Poetry Archive

  2. Davin – all great questions that I don’t really know the answers to! First of all, it seems that even Williams never quite figured out what exactly the variable foot was and how we all might write poetry measured by the variable foot…although I know Olson thought that his breath-driven work was certainly Williams-inspired. I’m convinced that, whether or not digital poets are conscious of the influence, a digital “poems” (are they poems?) by Young-Hae Chang definitely seem to have a fluctuating, pulsating space-time and–rather than being aurally scored as in a Williams poem, it’s visually scored. As for sound recordings, I’m listening right now to him reading from Paterson Book 2 on PennSound – I assume he’s reading something that’s of the variable foot but he so far sounds as if he’s talking as an ordinary “country” doctor. Check this out – almost all the sound recordings from his career:


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