Places: Paterson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1963 (includes Book I, 1946; Book II, 1948; Book III,1949; Book IV, 1951; Book V, 1958; revised edition, 1992)

Type of work: Poetry

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paterson

*Paterson. PatersonCity in northeastern New Jersey set amid factories, garbage dumps, pollution, and industrial blight, with the much larger cities of New York City and Newark on the horizon. Paterson is perched on the edge of the Passaic River and roaring waterfalls that attracted industry as far back as the time of Alexander Hamilton. The city itself is the poem’s main character: a living being, chaotic and shifting through time and differing perceptions, full of energy, beauty, ugliness, cruelty, and crass moneygrubbing.

Sometimes, William Carlos Williams is exhilarated by the masses of workers, immigrants, and ordinary men and women in Paterson; at other times, he is angry at their meanness, immorality, and pettiness, preferring the dogs in the park. Paterson is also the man/poet/doctor who becomes the consciousness and the voice of the city. The poem incorporates bits of conversation on the street, letters, news clippings, historical documents, and geological, economic, and industrial records.

*Passaic River

*Passaic River. New Jersey river that flows about ninety miles to the sea, passing through Paterson and entering the Atlantic Ocean at Newark. In the poem the river, representing life, time, and language, has been polluted and despoiled by human failure, greed, cruelty, and the failure to communicate. In the eighteenth century, however, the river is the place where Alexander Hamilton saw a future for the city and the place where early industrial barons grew rich off cotton and silk mills. As the river pours over its falls, it can cleanse itself; however, humans, who have no such redeeming language, are condemned to an inarticulate and fragmentary consciousness.

*Great Falls

*Great Falls. Seventy-four-foot drop in the Passaic River at Paterson, where the river thunders over a rocky ledge about sixty feet wide into a broad basin. The waterfall has been an attraction since early Native Americans thought the site to be holy, and it continues to draw tourists. In the poem the waterfall represents a potential that has been squandered through commercial exploitation. Williams uses the lip of the falls to represent the risk of inspired speech, the kind of imaginative leap necessary for poetry’s rebirth, an action that makes a new language possible.

*Sleeping Giant

*Sleeping Giant. Rock formation that creates the Great Falls and the bend in the river and changes the natural woodland above the waterfall into one of the major manufacturing centers in America. Williams believed that the shape of the rocks resembled the figure of a man lying on his side. In his poem, this imaginary stone figure becomes Paterson itself–the “Genius of the Place”–who becomes the symbol of the masculine, matched by the female symbol, the park, the mountains that overlook the city, and the natural world.


*Park. Parkland surrounding Great Falls that represents the female principle, often ignored and abused by the male, giving rise to the failure of communication and the divorce of the spirit. In the second volume of this poem, the imaginary Dr. Paterson strolls through the park observing men, women, dogs, and nature. He laments the poverty of imagination in the present-day population, suggesting that culture and poetry will “go on/ repeating itself with recurring/ deadliness,” destroying even the trees.


Library. In the third volume, Paterson the poet/city searches the library for historical records looking for an adequate language to recapture the promise of the landscape and the falls. In the library the fragments of history record the destruction necessary to start afresh: the fires, floods, winds, and all the literary, economic, social, perceptual, and emotional breakdowns that have plagued Paterson and America for more than three centuries. Out of this destruction the “Beautiful thing” arises.


Sea. The fourth book, “The Run to the Sea,” begins as an idyll modeled on Theocritus with a dialogue between Corydon and Phyllis and then between Phyllis and Paterson, who is married. The language becomes furtive and mingles with office talk in New York of money and murder and exploitation. The river and the book end in the sea, but a poet triumphantly crawls up out of the surf accompanied by a black female dog.

*Cloisters Museum

*Cloisters Museum. New York City art museum housing the famous Unicorn Tapestries, which are one of the subjects in the fifth volume of Williams’s poem. There, Williams meditatively focuses on the concepts of the Virgin and the whore, or art and morality. Poetry and art for Williams is sexual in its origin; in his fifth volume, art is seen as combining both male and female, a place for rebirth, and reawakening. The language is whole again for a while.

BibliographyDuffey, Bernard. A Poetry of Presence: The Writing of William Carlos Williams. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986. Considers Williams’ epic as a lyrical dramatization of his descent into the ambiguities of his concept of himself as an American poet. Williams, who was a doctor, wanted to reenact the facts of human misery in a new and healing speech.Mariani, Paul L. “Putting Paterson on the Map: 1946-1961.” In William Carlos Williams: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1975. Chronicles the struggle of critics and reviewers, including many notable poets, to come to grips with the meaning and importance of a strangely structured but major new work.Markos, Donald W. Ideas in Things: The Poems of William Carlos Williams. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. Interprets Paterson in the context of Williams’ idealist belief in beauty as the emanation of a universal, ideal reality through the particular world of things. This Platonism links him to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jonathan Edwards in the American tradition of individual perception and creative imagination.Sankey, Benjamin. A Companion to William Carlos Williams’s “Paterson.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971. Interpretive guide to the text, with pertinent information and comments by Williams. An introductory chapter presents Williams’ philosophy, design, and methodology.Schmidt, Peter. William Carlos Williams, the Arts, and Literary Tradition. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988. The relationship of Williams’ poetry to precisionist, cubist, and Dadaist aesthetics and to the literary tradition that preceded modernism. Williams used a variety of approaches to collage, while both critiquing and renewing epic form.
Categories: Places