Monday, April 30, 2007

The End of National Poetry Month

I started National Poetry Month by posting my favorite short poem, A.E. Housman's "Terrence, This Is Stupid Stuff," so it's only fitting that I end the month by posting part of my favorite long poem.

I don't know what the reputation of William Carlos Williams's Paterson is in the wider world, and I don't much care. I discovered it in college, in a 20th Century poetry course, and it hit me like a thunderbolt. It's an epic, but not an epic of a man -- it's the story of a city, of a people, told in the big American voice of the modern age. It's one of the very few works of poetry that I come back to again and again -- and not just because it's about my part of the world.

Here's the "Preface" from Book I of Paterson. If it intrigues you at all, go buy the book -- I may be biased, but I think this is as good as 20th century poetry gets. (And I hope the f-ing hard spaces I've coded in by hand twice to get the lines to start in the right places actually stay this time.)

Paterson: Book I


"Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?"
To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means--
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? and to do?
The rest have run out--
after the rabbits.
Only the lame stands--on
three legs. Scratch front and back.
Deceive and eat. Dig
a musty bone
For the beginning is assuredly the end--since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities.

Yet there is
no return: rolling up out of chaos,
a nine months' wonder, the city
the man, an identity--it can't be
interpenetration, both ways. Rolling
up! obverse, reverse;
the drunk the sober; the illustrious
the gross; one. In ignorance
a certain knowledge and knowledge,
undispersed, its own undoing.

(The multiple seed,
packed tight with detail, soured,
is lost in the flux and the mind,
distracted, floats off in the same

Rolling up, rolling up heavy with
It is the ignorant sun
rising in the slot of
hollow suns risen, so that never in this
world will a man live well in his body
save dying--and not know himself
dying; yet that is
the design. Renews himself
thereby, in addition and subtraction,
walking up and down.

and the craft,
subverted by thought, rolling up, let
him beware lest he turn to no more than
the writing of stale poems . . .

Minds like beds always made up,
(more stony than a shore)
unwilling or unable.

Rolling in, top up,
under, thrust and recoil, a great clatter:
lifted as air, boated, multicolored, a
wash of seas --
from mathematics to particulars--
divided as the dew,
floating mists, to be rained down and
regathered into a river that flows
and encircles:

shells and animacules
generally and so to man,

to Paterson.

Oh, maybe just a few more snippets:
--Say it, no ideas but in things--
nothing but the black faces of the house
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident--
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained--
secret--into the body of the light!
The preceding quote and the following one are both from the beginning of Book I, "The Delineaments of the Giants."

A man like a city and a woman like a flower
--who are in love. Two women. Three women.
Innumerable women, each like a flower.

only one man--like a city.

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