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Paterson, rev. ed.

Christopher MacGowan's scrupulously edited edition of Paterson supersedes all earlier editions of Williams's poem. Although minor textual changes may possibly be made in subsequent printings, this text is definitive. The enormous difficulties of reconstituting and presenting a final text are lucidly detailed in Appendix B, "A Note on the Text," and do not bear repeating here. It is enough to say that the five-book poem, written serially over twelve years, gathered to it textual corruptions, corruptions of corruptions, and ever-increasing new errors as printing followed printing. The repaginated 1969 edition but added to the confusion, for not only were errors of the 1963 edition carried into it wholesale, but the earlier text was cut and pasted for the reprinting, botching the spacing of many passages. Mr. MacGowan's work of regeneration, if you will, is an exemplary job of editing, and the reasons he offers - in general and in detail - for the many difficult choices that he made are, to my mind, sound and persuasive.

Not the least of this new editions's felicities is a return to an elegant page design, one that is closely patterned on the first editions of the five books. This is a notable improvement over the 1969 edition's cramped pages, which are as ugly as they are utilitarian. The "Annotations and Textual Notes" (Appendix C) are superb as well: they elucidate, enrich, and gloss the text precisely where needed, and are of value to the new reader of Paterson as well as to the adept.

Thirty-five years after the publication of Paterson 5 it is surely an impertinence to "review" the poem, but from this vantage we can confirm that Paterson is, indeed, a masterwork of High Modernism, an open collage of sustained and exquisite lyrics, fragmented narratives, recollected, revived, and revised history, and a bravura display of bricolage. Most remarkably, the poem is written in the face of its continuing protestations that it cannot be written: in Book I, there is posited the by-now famous metaphorical-symbolic architecture (man/city, woman/flower, etc.) which is subverted, ignored, and all but jettisoned even before that initial book's conclusion. From that point on its maker insists that the poem's structural problems are insuperable - even as the poem proves itself to be the solution to these stated problems.

It is a complex poem that pretends to be a failed exercise in the symbolic, but is actually," as they say, a masterpiece of combinatory strategies, and a triumph of the unique formal tension between metaphor and metonymy that Williams exploited with the authority that only the greatest artists command.

Finally, I do not see the poem as a retreat from Williams's faith in innovation, as a number of its readers do, but, rather, as a vast expansion of what is, perhaps, the central poem for the working out of Williams's poetics, number XII of Spring and All ("The red paper box / hinged with cloth"). To penetrate that short lyric's formal and mysterious perfections is to begin to comprehend Paterson, in which everything, though absolute in itself, is always about to become something else.
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Author:Sorrentino, Gilbert
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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