A Note on the Poet, the Philosopher, and the Simpleton in William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson”


I didn’t grow up in the generation of the Beat Poets, but I was always interested in them.   One of the poets who had a great influence on Beat Poets like Allan Ginsburg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti was William Carlos Williams.  One of the first books of poetry I read of his was “Paterson.”  I recently ran across the text and I was drawn in by the poetry of Book One Section II.  I found something very American, poetic, and comical in that section.  What I found so amazing is that Williams manages to keep each of these voices distinct.  The difference between a few styles of writing produces this comedic effect and this has much resonance with the schlemiel (who is a simpleton, a “tam”).

In the opening stanza, we hear a voice that is confused, a voice that is concerned with the “how” (not the “what”).  This voice is “more than a how,” says the poetic voice; it is a voice that Howls:

There is no direction. Whither? I

Cannot say. I cannot say

More than how.  The how (the howl) only

Is at my disposal (proposal): watching –

Colder than stone –

In a modernist sense, Williams is suggesting that we pay close attention to “how” he speaks and even more so to his “howl.”   This will help us to understand his poem.

The following stanza evokes an image of a “bud forever green.” But this bud has fallen on the pavement.  It is “divorced.”  From what?

Playing on this divorce, Williams evokes a public (and not a poetic) American voice which is mixed with a philosophical one:

Divorce is

The sign of knowledge in our time,

Divorce! Divorce!

These words direct our attention (by way of indirection) to the many ways things in this poem that are divorced from each other.   The next stanza evokes the “roar” of Paterson’s main waterfall.  It induces “sleep and silence…the roar of eternal sleep.”   The roar looks to “divorce” us from “wakefulness.”  It “challenges” us to stay awake.

Given the how we saw in the outset, we should ask a question: How – in the midst of this roaring – does one keep oneself awake?

The poem, at this point, presents “two halfgrown girls hallowing hallowed Easter.”  They are “weaving about themselves.”  But they are “disparate” among the roaring waters.  The theme of separation and divorce are once again pronounced.

“Beauty” comes to the rescue.  To be sure, Immanuel Kant and other philosophers associate beauty with harmony.  And in this scenario, perhaps beauty can bring the divorced elements together.  The poet, speaking from a poetic and a philosophical angle, provides a reflection on the girls mentioned above.  He says they are wrapped up in ribbons, bows, and twigs.  There is even reference to fur.  Their beauty, it seems,  harmonizes culture and nature.  But, in the midst of this poetic solution to a philosophical crisis, we hear an American voice interrupt the image:

Ain’t they beautiful!

The voice of the slang is divorced from the poetic voice, but, in its simplicity, it brings the poem to a different place:

Certainly I am not a robin or erudite,

No Erasmus nor bird that returns to the same

Ground year by year….

The ground has undergone a subtle transformation, its identity altered.

The poet, who also seems to be a philosopher, loses his identity, the “ground” he speaks from (which could be a philosophical or poetic ground) is altered; and, as a result, he becomes a simpleton and child-like.  But this transformation is not complete: the poet and philosopher return after this shift.  And they are both overwhelmed by all of the details of existence.  They stay “awake” out of some kind of existential terror.  But the simpleton does not seem to be affected.  Is he sleeping?  Has the roar of the waterfall put him to sleep?

This contrast – between the poet, the philosopher, and the simpleton – makes me think of the schlemiel.  The schlemiel travels around existence, explores it, yet without any philosophical quandaries about beauty, the divorce between the cultural and the natural, and so forth.  He is free of that, but the poet is not.  And this creates a kind of relationship – like the one between Sancho Panza and Don Quixote: the fool and the rationalist.

But, and this is the point, they (like the voices in this poem) stick together.  And Sancho Panza learns from Quixote.  Here, the poet and the philosopher learn from the ways of the simple American who is “not a robin or erudite” and he doesn’t return to the “same ground.” For the Simpleton, everything seems different (but in the way of wonder not angst, which sees everything as divorced).   And, unlike the philosopher or the poet, he doesn’t have a ground.  But, for the simpleton,  that’s nothing to panic over.  They panic, while he wanders, distracted, through the American landscape.

3 thoughts on “A Note on the Poet, the Philosopher, and the Simpleton in William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson”

      • yeah, that was my questions. is the schlm Pesach’s simple son. ? if you have not yet covered it i hope you will,not thatthe trope cant be polyvalent and emobdy all 4.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s