Week Three: Paterson as a Three-Dimensional Poem

I’m late for a very important date with you all, but all the same: the assignment for Week Three prompts me to continue on with my thinking about Williams (another essay for you! but it’s what I’m working through right now—I can’t help myself), the way the variable foot creates a three dimensional poem (that, because it’s 3D, you might as well touch, feel!), and how his work sits next to (literally next to) a digital poem that also tries to be three dimensional. I don’t know what Week Four’s assignment is going to be BUT I’m guessing it’ll be broad enough to allow me to write out a nice long reading of a digital poem to echo my reading of Williams. I’m fascinated with how Williams, of all people, a canonical King of the bookbound poem, seems to be struggle to accomplish on the page what simply was not yet possible. But at the same time I’m fascinated with my own competely problematic impulse to be a technological determinist….Anyways, here’s what I’ve been thinking about Williams and Paterson for the last two weeks.


In “Book One” Williams is still working out a consistent spatio-temporal mapping of the speech and space of Paterson. For the moment, his solution, which he largely abandons by “Book Two,” is to use periods as in the foregoing quote to score certain blank spaces; the dots act as a textual version of a musical rest of a given duration and so re-enliven both the unmarked and marked white (though not empty) space of the page. Still, while “Book One” is indeed a complex of fragmented thought, speech, historical documents, and letters, his innovative use of the period cannot have satisfied him as at this point Paterson is still fairly formally rigid, structured as it is by blocks of left-justified text. A text that both represents and acts as a catalyst for the discovery of the varied, constantly shifting spaces/speech of a given place must necessarily be formally fluid yet aurally precise. As he writes a few years later, reflecting on “The Poem Paterson”:

It called for a poetry such as I did not know, it was my duty to discover or make such a context on the “thought.” To make a poem, fulfilling the requirements of the art, and yet new, in the sense that in the very lay of the syllables Paterson as Paterson would be discovered, perfect, perfect in the special sense of the poem, to have it—if it rose to flutter into life awhile—it would be as itself, locally, and so like every other place in the world. For it is in that, that it be particular to its own idiom, that it lives. (The Autobiography 392)

As we now know, it is in “Book Two,” “beginning with the line: ‘The descent beckons,’” that Williams decides that “the lay of the syllables” of Paterson can best be scored with the variable foot (Selected Letters 334). First, before we turn to this passage from Part III of “Book Two,” I would like to return to “The Poem as a Field of Action,” a talk Williams gave the same year that “Book Two” was published in 1948; here we find that the driving force behind his attempts to create a consistent variable foot is his realization that “[t]he only reality that we can know is MEASURE” (Selected Essays 283). Sounding strikingly postmodern here, he asserts that we can never have unmediated knowledge of a given place—we can only ever know the way by which we come to know which, in turn, is only ever a means of measuring reality. And further, given that Einstein shows us that measurements are not only relatively true but they are so only in relation to a constant (“Einstein had the speed of light as a constant—his only constant” [286]), poetic measurement should likewise be relatively true in relation to a constant—perhaps, Williams muses, the constant in poetry should be “our concept of musical time. I think so” (286). And, if time in poetry is not determined by a rigid meter such as iambic pentameter, then it is almost entirely determined by speech patterns and rhythms. Thus, not only must we “. . . listen to the language for the discoveries we hope to make” (290), but we must also accurately recreate what we have heard and/or catalyze further discovery of the language with a “well spaced” page. He writes in Part I of “Book Two,” prefiguring the poetic turning point in Part III:

Without invention nothing is well spaced,
unless the mind change, unless
the stars are new measured, according
to their relative positions, theline will not change . . .. . . without invention
nothing lies under the witch-hazelbush, the alder does not grow from among
the hummocks margining the all
but spent channel of the old swale (50)

Despite the spatial regularity of this passage, Williams is calling for nothing less than a culture-wide recognition of the fact that we only know the outside world (or that the outside world only exists for us) through measurement and further, since at least 1920, we can only measure or know the “relative positions” of the outside world. Simply put, “[r]elativity gives us the cue” (Selected Essays 340). More, the first two lines of the above excerpt—“Without invention nothing is well spaced” (emphasis my own)—also imply that, for Williams, relativity means perpetual innovation: as every speech event has its own space-time, so too then must every enactment of that speech event.

However, it was a passage from “Book Two” that brought Williams to the inventive spacing of the variable foot; this passage not only shows us Williams listening to the language, trying to translate what was heard into what is seen, but it forces us to listen to and observe the particular patterns of speech he maps down and across the page:

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 (78)

Note how Williams’ revelatory move to break the line into a regularized tri-partite structure enables both a horizontal reading across the three rows and a vertical reading down the three columns of text—the structure insists on a particular rhythmical reading that is determined by the line-breaks. However, while Williams had some particular rhythm in mind (one that, because of the unique event that he is representing, cannot be scanned for patterns or taken up as a standard poetic form), presumably we recognize “the variable foot” spatially, as a line of text, rather than by the externally imposed metronomic beat of a metrical foot. Further, since a foot is now visually marked by a line, but a line of poetry in Paterson is properly made up of three feet that are, again, marked as lines, Williams’ variable foot therefore obviates the need for stanzas which insist on the reader treating the blank space between stanzas as empty rather than as a crucial space by which to more precisely score the poem. The passage above also engenders a pictorial reading given the eye rhymes binding one line to the next—for example the diagonal stacking of letters ‘e’, ‘a’, ‘o’, ‘i’ and ‘h’. But note too how the aural and visual echo in the opening two lines—“The descent beckons / as the ascent beckoned”—and how the lines subtly reinforce the fact that they constistute a reading/writing event. Because “the ascent beckoned” can be read as referring back “up” to the previous line, it effectively marks, instead of effaces or transcends, the passing of “real” earthbound time during Williams’ writing and our reading. In a sense, he has created a three-dimensional poem whose three axes (two spatial axes and the temporal axis of speech or rhythm) are all constantly utilized. (All of the foregoing aspects of just these few lines of “Book Two” bring to mind Williams’ fascination with Whitehead and his hypothesis that Einstein’s theory of relativity means we ought now to think not of absolute measurements of space and time, or even of relative measurements of space-time, but of the relative measurement of the space-time of a given event—here, the event is that of two lines of poetry.) Not suprisingly, however, the perpetual inventiveness that Williams called for early on in Part I of “Book Two” is not sustainable (and so in a sense Paterson is a record of his poetic successes and failures more than it is a record of Paterson itself). Only a page later after the passage quoted above from Part III, Williams’ inventive spacing approaches the limits of recognizability; any more innovative measuring/spacing and the poem will become, as I earlier quoted him writing in a letter to Kay Boyle, “a rhythmical blur,” (Selected Letters 132).

The descent
        made up of despairs
                and without accomplishment
realizes a new awakening:
                which is a reversal
of despair.
        For what we cannot accomplish, what
is denied to love,
        what we have lost in the anticipation—
                a descent follows,
endless and indestructible    .(79) 

formally, almost always break where a careful American English speaker might pause. Williams has even broken away from the neatness of the tripartite line; instead he has positioned his lines as steps that loosely move back and forth across the page and between the diagonal poles of “[t]he descent” and, ten lines later, “a descent follows.” Thematically, whereas “[t]he descent” on the previous page seems largely to refer to the text’s descent down the page, here, again as we move down the page and through the duration (read: space-time) of the speaker’s musings, “[t]he descent” is amplified to refer to the relentless struggle against abstraction (the ascent), the upwardly mobile drive for “accomplishment,” and the embrace of an unceasing excavation or acknowledgement of the historical, environmental, linguistic ground of particulars underlying Paterson/Paterson. Ironically, while such a descent into the messiness of particulars makes possible “a new awakening,” what we are in fact awakened to is the realization that the descent would not have happened in the first place without the experience of failure, denial, loss. Not suprisingly, then, as form is nothing more than an extension of content in Paterson (to paraphrase Williams’ literary inheritor Robert Creeley), Williams retreats from formal inventiveness and so straightens out the lines of Part III (which now coalesce around the left margin), and the part ends not with poetry but with a scathing letter written to “Dr. P” accusing him of having “never had to live . . . —not in any of the by-ways and dark underground passages where life so often has to be tested” (90). Failure, denial, loss. *In the later books of Paterson and in his letters and essays from the 1950s and 1960s, Williams only grows more insistent about his sense that “. . . the foot can no longer be measured as it was formerly but only relatively . . .” (Selected Letters 332). As he writes at the end of “Book Five,” “The measure intervenes, to measure is all we know, // a choice among the measures . . // the measured dance” (235). But it’s not until a 1961 transcription of a curious conversation between Williams and Walter Sutton that he explicitly addresses the spatial dimensions of this poetic measure or how he designates a given cluster of words as a foot if the verse is not measured accentually:

WCW: . . . the variable foot is measured. But the spaces between the stresses, the rhythmical units, are variable.
WS: You mean that there are feet, even though the feet may not have regular stresses, as in conventional verse?
WCW: Very definitely, I do.
WS: But you wouldn’t think of them in terms of stresses?
WCW: No, not as stresses, but as spaces in between the various spaces of the verse. I would say perhaps the confusion comes from my calling them the feet. (Interviews 38-39)

How to make sense of Williams’ explanation here? If the “spaces between the stresses” are variable, then what is the constant by which the stresses themselves are measured? How do we recognize a “rhythmical unit” as such if the surrounding context is constantly in flux? Williams, now nearing the end of his writing life, seems to have reversed the principle by which poetry had long been ordered; now, the poem is measured not by its words, sounds, or rhythms, but by the spaces surrounding the words/sounds/rhythms. He has activated “blank” space and in this way turned it into what Charles Olson would soon see as a field of energy—a pulsating, fluctuating space that girds the words, as if Williams wants the words themselves to pulsate but, given the limits of the bookbound page, he settles for the surrounding space of the page which is unmarred and open for any appropriation. Further, since “. . . to talk in the American idiom you can’t talk as Shakespeare used to talk, or Milton, or Eliot. You have finally to get away from this pattern of speech and invent another speech . . .”, how else to reinvent language but to do so negatively, taking advantage of the flexibility of the blank space of the page—space that can be shaped, again and again, to reshape in turn the language of Shakespeare, Milton, and Eliot? “I’ve got myself in wrong before the critics by attempting to bring in the idea of mathematics. Of Einstein. Not Einstein, we’ll say, but Einstein’s ideas. The uncertainty of space” (Interviews 45).

2 thoughts on “Week Three: Paterson as a Three-Dimensional Poem”

  1. I was wondering if you had any examples of electronic pieces that might explore this idea of 3-Dimensional poetry. I’ve seen 3-Dimensionality explored quite literally in terms of interface… But I was wondering if you might have a small set of examples that you could offer up.

    This research/writing on Williams is really cool, by the way. When we are all done, you should edit it and find a place for it.

  2. Seems like you’d have a better argument for 4d, given Williams’ seeming obsession over a certain irretrievability of time through the agency of the falls, even as he traces time’s snail tracks through the archive. 3d implies a kind of sculptural, fine-artsy control that I don’t think really does it for me. I’ve tried to encounter the poem using the blog format at _New Jersey as an Impossible Object_ (impossibleobject.blogspot.com) as a way to somehow interface the flow of Paterson, while letting it get away with itself.
    Also, you mentioned in an earlier comment how the Penn Sound recordings do not sound like Williams is really doing his line the way it is written. I think this is important to think about and it’s why I don’t buy completely the notion that his spatial innovations constitute a score for its “reading.” The contribution of Williams’ variable foot to a kind of musical (or anti-musical) text seems to me have been overplayed in general, although you are right to point out the utter importance of “measure” to the poem. No matter how much I’m interested in appreciating the sound that resonates the pure textual materiality of Paterson, I can’t hear any relation between the way he reads in these recordings and the way the words are arrayed on the page.
    Where this might intersect with epoetry can be in the notion of how a text is destined or where it ends up. Its 4d drama, if you will. Williams is one of those poets would point to as someone for whom the notion that a poetic text is destined to be spoken or even sung is bunk. Did Williams think it was bunk too and were his performances ironic genuflections to the aura of artist? Not sure. But I think many new epoets are interesting precisely because they choose to embody what could be a nihilistic or logorrheic floating scrawl into a live embodiment (and you mention aya, whose doll piece does this very well).

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