Monday, February 14, 2011 at 06:20AM
National Book Foundation

Paterson: Book III and 

Selected Poems

By William Carlos Williams

Original Publisher: New Directions (Paterson: Book III)
Current Publisher:
Out of Print

Ross Gay writes:

It wasn’t until researching these blog posts that I realized William Carlos Williams was the first recipient of the National Book Award in 1950.  Kind of astonishing that the first prize landed on someone so right, so important, as Williams, a poet whose innovations, theories, and poems are an undeniable part of our poetry’s genetic material.  If you check, you’ll find his photo (you know the one, the sun lighting up his grey and thinning hair, the left hand holding the right above the typewriter, like he’s using every ounce of self-control not to start hammering away at another poem) sitting on your mantle—whether it’s behind the urn or under the picture of your other grandpa is irrelevant.  He’s there.  Many of the subsequent “schools” seem to be connected to him: the Beats, the New York School, Black Mountain, Black Arts, the L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poets, and so on.  And part of this is due to the fact that Williams is our great theorist and practitioner and advocate of The American Voice.  In his introduction to The Wedge (1941) he writes:

“Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship.  But poetry is the machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy.  As in all machines its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.  In a poem this movement is distinguished in each case by the character of the speech from which it arises.

            Therefore, each speech having its own character, the poetry it engenders will be peculiar to that speech also in its own form.”

How beautiful and affirming, the possibility that our real American voices (complex and varied as they are) might “drive” the ship of language.  The fuel, in other words, is how we talk.  Which is where we come from.  Which is who we come from.  Which is our home.  And further, that the forms we imagine and invent must necessarily emerge from those same places and bodies and mouths and lives—not Europe, because America is not Europe—but Youngstown and Lubbock and North Jersey.  He writes in his essay, “Caviar and Bread Again: A Warning to the New Writer,” “The older poetry is worn out for us along with all new work which follows the older line.  No amount of reinflation after Eliot’s fashion can help it.”  That’s clear enough.  And good music.

And while this search for an American Idiom and the perfect form to express it is evident as a motivating tension or aspiration throughout the bulk of Williams’ career, Paterson provides readers a map of what may have been his most thorough search for that idiom.  A poem in which the newspaper article and the letter and the historical document are all the poem.  Many voices, many stories, many layers.  Maybe Paterson is Williams’ dream of democracy, of freedom.  His attempt at being free.  Can a poem be that?

In addition to Paterson (he won the prize in 1950 for both Paterson: Book III and Selected Poems), Williams worked things out in the shorter poems that he produced at a furious pace (anyone I talk to who loves Williams has read about an eighth of his collected writings, which includes about a million poems, an autobiography, novels, stories, essays, etc).  And every time I return to the work I’m astonished not only by the “things” from which his “ideas” allegedly emerged, and not only by the technical innovations of line and syntax, and not only by his noble visioning of the adequate and accurate form for his poetry.  I’m deeply moved by the heart of the poems.  Some of those are the familiar poems like “Dance Russe,” “This is Just to Say,” and “To a Poor Old Woman.”  But I also admire and turn to Williams for the intense vision of his poems which is at turns compassionate, at turns terrifying, and sometimes both.  Here’s one I love: 

At the Ball Game

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them—

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius—

all to no end save beauty
the eternal—

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied—
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut—

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it—

The Jew gets it straight—it
is deadly, terrifying—

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them

This is
the power of their faces

it is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought

Ross Gay’s books of poems include Against Which (CavanKerry Press, 2006) and Bringing the Shovel Down (University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming January 2011). His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, MARGIE, Ploughshares, and many other magazines. He has also, with the artist Kimberly Thomas, collaborated on several artists’ books, including The Cold Loop, BRN2HNT, and The Bullet. He is an editor with the chapbook press Q Avenue. Gay received his MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, and his PhD in American Literature from Temple University. He teaches in the low-residency MFA program in poetry at Drew University, and in Indiana University’s English department. (Photo credit: Zach Hetrick)

Poetry Finalists that Year: Not Announced

Poetry Judges that Year: W.H. Auden, Louise Bogan, Babette Deutsch, Louis Untermeyer

The Year in Literature:

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