AMERICAN EPIC: ON PATERSON byCiarán O’Rourke

A winner of the Cúirt New Irish Writing Award, the Fish Poetry Prize, and the Westport Poetry Prize, Ciarán O’Rourke is an Irish poet, currently based in Galway. 

His first collection, The Buried Breath, was issued by The Irish Pages Press in 2018, and highly commended by the Forward Foundation the following year. His pamphlet, Glass Life, was published as a Ragpicker Edition in 2021.

He completed his PhD on William Carlos Williams in 2019, and is founder and editor of the online archive of poetry-themed interviews, www.islandsedge poetry.net

His second collection, Phantom Gang, is forthcoming from The Irish Pages Press.

Introduction

“The only human value of anything, writing included, is intense vision of the facts.” – William Carlos Williams  

After a number of years getting to grips with the poetry of William Carlos Williams, and a considerable portion of that time devoted to his mid-century modernist epic, Paterson, I thought it would be exciting to take another extended glance at that noisy, sprawling, and fierce late work. This essay, in eight sections, is the result. 

Sometimes critical, the discussion that follows nevertheless was largely written in a spirit of tribute and exploration. I try to give due acknowledgement to Paterson’s formal complexity and range, to make sense of its volatile and thrilling shifts in register and tone, to highlight its political and discursive concerns (and limitations), and to clarify the often audacious, roaming radicalism of Williams’s social perspectives as projected in the poem…

Preview

1 // “a thundrous voice”

“Patterson [sic.] repels me”, one authority declared in 1959, professing to find in William Carlos Williams’s boundary-breaking, book-length poem “one of the first symptoms & general encouragements of the modern literary syphilis”:

... verseless, styleless, characterless all-inclusive undifferentiated yelling assertion of the Great simplifying burden-lifting God orgasm... damning all constructed civilisation, including all poetry that has not been gasped out with vomit or orgasm.

The reader in question was twenty-nine-year-old Ted Hughes, recently returned from America, where he first encountered Paterson some months previously. His remarks suggest something of the polarising and often visceral response that Williams’s modernist work has elicited from critics of varying sensibilities over the years, not to mention the force of Paterson’s challenge to those monoliths of “civilisation” and traditional verse that Hughes apparently valued so highly. 

Deploying documentary and cinematic techniques, and engaging a number of complex, often self-ironising literary and political discourses, Paterson was intended to shatter the formal barriers of a poetic tradition burdened, as Williams saw it, by artificial conventions. There was a looming gap in American poetry, he felt, surrounding “real” experience (represented in the poem by the “debased” New Jersey city), and made all the more glaring by a culturally dominant academic language too outworn and ill-equipped to accommodate the rush of life, “the roar of the river / forever in our ears (arrears)” (P 17). “The / library”, Williams’s narrator declares, “is muffled and dead” (P 123). 

In Paterson, Williams set out to join the body breathing with the body politic, creating a panoramic, yet locally rooted vision of American modernity. “[B]eyond the gap where the river / plunges into the narrow gorge”, we’re told, “a voice / beckons, a thundrous voice, endless” (P 55) – the Great Falls of Paterson city (familiar to viewers of The Sopranos tv show), which inspired the poet to a powerful and unflinching reverie of the nation he knew, “its garbage on the curbs, its legislators / under the garbage” (P 81). Williams wanted to see and hear America in verse, and to do that he needed to reinvent the poetic forms available to him.

Praise for the Author

‘In Paterson, Williams refuted modernist claims for coherence and unity in the long poem, instead drawing on the actuality of American variety and multiplicity he experienced. Paterson is the mature poetic realisation of Williams’s ground-breaking essay collection In the American Grain. It takes a sensitive, brave critic to engage with Williams’s challenging poetics, and to confront the consequences of non-coherence. We are all grateful to Ciarán O’Rourke for having the qualities evident in this informed and thoughtful study.’

— Professor Stephen Matterson, Trinity College Dublin; President Emeritus of The Irish Association for American Studies. 

‘Incisively, O’Rourke explores Paterson as a form unto itself. This is not criticism as a tiresome demarcation exercise. The author recognises that Paterson does not fit into ordained boxes, and the poem is rightly analysed as an outlier. The likes of Angela Davis and Ludwig Wittgenstein emerge as links in a chain of thoughtfully curated references, through which O’Rourke investigates the poem’s ambiguous contemporary relevance. As the author remarks in his introduction, Williams is a multifaceted poet, often remembered for the less radical facets of his output; the text that follows is vital in emphasising Williams as an innovator, and the ‘complicated love song’ of Paterson as a work of idiosyncratic experimentalism, both of its time, and far ahead of it.’

— Michael Sutton, poet, editor of Overground Underground magazine.

‘In a generation of young poets with a marked preference for academic archness and high/low culture mash-ups, Ciarán O’Rourke blazes a singular trail…. A poet who approaches both the ancient and modern with the same insight and sensitivity, O’Rourke surely has a long and distinguished career ahead of him.’

Jessica Traynor, poet & author of Liffey Swim (Dedalus Press), The Quick (Dedalus Press), & Pit Lullabies (Bloodaxe Books).

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