William Carlos Williams under the influence
Borrowing from The Cantos to write the greatest American epic
“Ain’t it enuf that you so deeply influenced my formative years
without your wanting to influence also my later ones?”
WCW’s letter to Ezra Pound, 12 April 1954 (1)
William Carlos Williams’s aim of writing an epic using as a raw material a small New Jersey city is very ambitious. Perhaps even more ambitious than Pound’s agglutination of eras and languages in the Cantos, or Eliot’s purpose to representing the decadence of the whole modern world in The Waste Land.
To write the 5 books of Paterson, Williams borrowed patterns and music from Eliot’s poems and ideas and sources from Ezra Pound. The rhythm and cadence of T.S. Eliot is everywhere in Paterson, and Pound’s Cantos is used by the Rutherford poet as a pattern to write his own big epic. Paterson is the “magnus opus that I’ve always wanted to do” as Williams call it in a letter to Pound in November of 1936.
The two poets that Williams disdained publicly most of his life are the ones he imitates the most. He was not happy about that influence, but he could not deny it either, as he says in this letter to Robert McAlmon:
Pound is] a one sided bastard if there ever was one, who has borrowed from everybody, including myself in the old days, but he’s done a good job, surpassingly good. And I’ve borrowed from him much more than I’ve given. Everyone has who has followed him. Yeats specially (qted, In Thirlwall, 220).
Pound’s influence is clear in all William’s first books. But by 1946, when he published the first book of Paterson, Williams thought that those influences had been erased and lost among the fabulous structure of his work. However, as the critic K.L. Goodwin says “ the one whose work has been touched at the greatest number of points by Pound, and the one who has shown the greatest ability to avoid mere imitation, is William Carlos Williams” (Goodwin, 144).
One of the main influences of Pound in Williams’s Paterson is the imagist theory of poetry. Paterson is full of images, from the beginning of the first book: the city-person is described using some of the best imagist lines written by Williams. Paterson certainly is an imagist epic, which has sudden changes of voices and breaks of verse, combined with long portions of prose. Goodwin connects this treatment of Paterson as Williams’s intention of using merely descriptions to generate sensations, avoiding any kind of subjectivity:
Many passages from Paterson are imagistic. The reason for the frequency of such passages may be that the whole poem is a symbolic treatment of man through the features of the city, Paterson, and as this symbolic connection is partly brought out through prose interludes, Williams felt that he could indulge in objective description without having to make the relationship between it and the theme explicit (Goodwin, 150-151).
When using certain images, Williams seems to be looking for them. He’s not getting what image he gets from inspiration and putting them into the poem. He seems to be looking for images that he needs to fit a certain plan. He seem to be looking for images to replace ones that he had seen before in other epic poems. Some of the images that Williams is looking for, seem to have their origin in The Cantos. I think that a good example of this kind of research is found in this lines from A Draft of XXX Cantos (1930):
City of patterned streets; again the vision:
Down in the viae stradae, toga’d the crowd, and arm’d,
Rushing in populous business,
And from parapet looked down
And North was Egypt,
The celestial Nile, blue deep,
cutting low barren land,
Old men and camels
Working the water-wheels (Pound, 17).
The fragmented city of these lines of The Cantos, could be traced to the unreal city that T.S. Eliot evokes in The Waste Land. In Eliot’s poem there is an interest to describe poetically the interdependence of cities and water. The water manifestated as river, sea, or rain. There is a historical fact of dependance of cities and rivers. But there is also a pattern in the way Pound, Eliot and Williams use the relationship water-city, as in these lines from the Book One of Paterson (1946):
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, thought he breathes and the subtleties of his
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring
animate a thousand automatons (Williams, 6)
The connection between the people of a city with the river and the implications of productivity and some kind of technological activity in Pound’s Cantos is there, even if transformed, in the verses of Paterson. The talent of Williams is that since Paterson is a city and a man at the same time, the figure of “populous business” of The Cantos kind of vanishes. In Paterson there is a transformation of the images coming from The Cantos. It is not very difficult to trace the steps of their change, however In The Cantos, The Nile river is a source of productivity, an instrument of “progress” who moves the water-wheels, while the “pouring” Passaic river and the “machinations” of Paterson are combined to move those thousand “automatons”. The technology is different, but both poems are connected by the idea of the river as an agent of transformation.
The particular talent of Williams is that he applies the technique of imagism not just to static objects. There is qualitative jump from the stillness of Eliot’s images in The Waste Land to the way Williams sees the world, as Goodwin writes:
Williams’s assimilation and adaptation of Imagism seems to me to be one of the most successful uses of the technique (…) He applied imagism not just to static images but to moving ones: to the swaying of the trees, the flight of birds, and the fall of water. As a result his imagistic poems lack the stillness that occurs in those of Eliot… (Goodwin, 151).
In addition, Williams used a group of personal letters in Paterson. He intercalates them through the poem. Some of these letters are the ones from the underprivileged mother of one of his patients, Marcia Nardi to which Williams points as the letters that helped him to unify some of the main topics of his epic. Nardi’s letters were very important to the purposes of Williams to fit some of the gaps of his “magnus opus,” as Paul Mariani details in William Carlos Williams A New World Naked:
Nardi’s letter would serve to recapitulate nearly all the major themes with which his autobiographical poem had been concerned: The woman as victim, complaining, accusing, crying out in pain; the divorce between the two sexes and the danger that the woman would turn to other woman for solace; the woman as the energy and the flower of a man’s life; the poem itself as a confession of inadequacy; the socioeconomic ills that had created so many of the tensions between men and women, making of the man a false nurturer and forcing the woman into an unnatural dependency on man (…) that letter turned out to be, as Williams would explain years later, a found object paralleling Eliot’s infamous use of footnotes at the end of The Waste Land (Mariani, 462-463).
What kind of “voice” was Williams looking for? A comparison between an excerpt from Nardi’s letter and a famous one from The Cantos, proves that maybe he was looking for more than a simple voice to explain his points. Williams was looking for a voice to match this famous letter from Pound’s Canto XXVI:
To the supreme pig, the archbishop of Salzburg:
Lasting filth and perdition.
Since your exalted pustulence is too stingy
To give me a decent income
And has already assured me that here I have nothing to hope
And had better seek fortune elsewhere;
And since thereafter you have
Three times impeded my father and self intending departure
I ask you for the fourth time
To behave with more decency, and this time
Permit my departureWolfgang Amadeus, august 1777 (Pound, 128).
Williams found the match, in this excerpt of a long letter from Nardi that he published at the end of Paterson’s Book 2 (1948):
The anger and the indignation which I felt towards you now has served to pierce through the rough ice of that congealment which my creative faculties began to suffer from as a result of that last note from you. I find myself thinking and feeling in terms of poetry again. But over and against this is the fact that I’m even more lacking in anchorage of any kind than when I first got to know you. My loneliness is a million fathoms deeper, and my physical energies even more seriously sapped by it; and my economic situation is naturally worse, with living costs so terrible high now (Williams, 89).
There is in both letters, a feeling of the anxiety from somebody with a creative mind, suffering a state of dependence, trapped in the hands of somebody who has the power to control his destiny. It is very interesting to deduce that in this playful use of Nardi’s letter, Williams is assuming the position of “The supreme pig.”
The different voices struggling in Patterson are the different Personæ that Pound brings into The Cantos. There is the remarkable similarity between the criticism of usury made by Pound in The Cantos and criticism that Williams made of usury. As Goodwin notes, Williams “was not yet ready to follow Pound by attempting to versify it but such an attempt was made in a vehement attack on usury” (Goodwin, 156.) Williams attacks usury in these lines from Book 2 of Paterson:
The Federal Reserve System is a private enterprise…a private monopoly… (with power)…given to it by a spineless Congress (…)
They create money from nothing and lend it to private business (the same money over and over again at a high rate of interest), and also to the Government whenever it needs money in a war and peace… (Williams, 73)
This is a very similar point of view as the one of Pound about usury. But the similarity of ideas is not the most important to confront the borrowing of ideas from The Cantos.
The main point is that, like the idea of a river as the source of life for a city and main center of the economic activity, or as the anger of the creator against his master, many of the topics defined already by Pound in his A Draft of XXX Cantos from 1930, are present in Paterson.
It is true that Williams mastered the technique of imagism. Constraining his poem to the sources provided by documents about Paterson and people of New Jersey, he created a poem that is proudly 100% American in its content. But he was following some rules established by Pound. Old Ezra defined most of the topics that could be considered in a twentieth-century epic. Writing Paterson, Williams is filling the gaps, taking out European or Asian references and filling them with American elements.
In many ways, The Cantos is also a 100% American epic, because its creator is a product of the different brooks that shaped this country. And he is the original source. In many ways The Cantos is the blue Nile that running from above, higher than spires, higher even than the office towers watered the minds of many poets of this country and developed into brilliant poems like Paterson.
Breslin, James E. William Carlos Williams An American Artist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Goodwin, K.L. The Influence of Ezra Pound. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Mariani, Paul. William Carlos Williams A New World Naked. New York: Mc Graw-Hill, 1981
Pound, Ezra. The Cantos. London: faber and faber, 1986.
Thirlwall, John C. The Selected Letters of William Carlos Williams. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1957
Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: New Directions, 1995.