Many of my New York City friends find my enthusiasm for Paterson, New Jersey, a little baffling and somewhat perverse. For many years I admired the place from afar, as a literary icon, of all odd things, because of my college research on William Carlos Williams. Paterson also has a resonance with contemporary national politics: two of the September 11 hijackers, Nawaf al Hamzi and the enigmatic, mild-looking, soft-featured rural Saudi Hani Hanjour, who piloted American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon, lived in Paterson briefly.
In its crumbling melting pot isolation, virtually ignored by the rest of the country, Paterson appears to be an ongoing American experiment, but it is far from clear to the casual observer whether the experiment is working out. As in many of the less gentrified cities of the Eastern Seaboard, violent crime is endemic, but the city remains irrepressibly energetic. The city does not look like America thinks America is supposed to look, and yet it is a very American place. It is filled with the kind of fancy old buildings that New Yorkers would die for, especially the Georgian and Dutch Colonials of Eastside Park. The Passaic Falls could be a national monument, vast and breathtaking, a mini-Niagra. The abandoned high school sports stadium that stands near the top of the Falls looks like a crumbling wreck from the third world.
A former Silk City that turned the waters of the Passaic a toxic blue with its 19th-century industrial pollution, Paterson now has the thousand-seat Masjid Jalalabad mosque on Van Houten. After Dearborn, Michigan, Paterson is home to the largest Arab-American community in the country. African-Americans, Columbians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Costa Ricans, Italians, Bengalis, Albanians, Syrians, and Lebanese share a densely populated zone. Western Market Street (a.k.a. “Little Lima”) is known as the American seat of the Peruvian Diaspora. As in the future, white folks are one among many minority groups. On a daytrip with some New York artist friends to look at the Falls and the contemporary transformation of the city into a sort of postindustrial, down-but-not-out version of “the global village” through astonishing and varied waves of worldwide migration, my friends dreamed of Paterson one day hosting a gigantic arts complex. Picture dozens of abandoned industrial remnants transformed into an entire city of Tate Moderns, sharing the urban fabric with one of the more diverse spots on earth.
William Carlos Williams tended to Paterson as the Dublin of his own private Ulysses. The cover of his book-length poem Paterson depicts the bridge over the Passaic Falls, which had turned from limpid to undrinkable dreck by 1881. Book Six of Paterson lay unfinished when he died. One note about Book Six noted that the city of Paterson “was to exceed his London on which he patterned it.” The “he” was Alexander Hamilton, and he conceived Paterson as, verily, an American City on a Hill. L’Enfant was brought in to design the city as the younger sister of Washington, D.C. But the convoluted note regarding Dr. Williams’ plans for Book Six of Paterson sounds skeptical notes about Hamilton:
As Weehawken is to Hamilton
is to Provence we’ll say, he hated it
of which he knew nothing and cared less
and used it inhis scheems [sic] – so
founding the country which was to
increase to be the wonder of the world
in its day
which was to exceed his london on which he patterned it
(a key figure in the development)
The Founding Fathers, then, were not to be seen in the roseate light of retrospective nostalgia.
Alexander Hamilton had first arrived in America at the port of Elizabeth, New Jersey. To get there from Paterson today you drive through The Meadowlands around Newark Airport, an infernal swamp out of Dante separating the unspecified wasteland of the I-95 corridor from the gates of Manhattan. Going in there, you feel as though you’re passing through a moral initiation, accepting that a creature such as New York City drains the lifeblood from three adjoining states. The calculus is something like this: this part of New Jersey must be ugly because New York must be beautiful. It is unfair, in the same way that leaving the entire state of New Jersey off the New York subway map is unfair, as if those taking PATH trains out of Manhattan end their journey in a blank void. This is all part of New Jersey’s underdog status, which is also part of its secret appeal, of course.
So Elizabeth, New Jersey, was the originating point into American history for both Hamilton and Hani Hanjour, across the highway at Newark Liberty International. (H. P. Lovecraft loved the spot too, for its colonial architecture, as an escape hatch during his miserable years in Brooklyn: the first notes for “The Call of Cthulhu” were written on a park bench in Jersey.) These days, most people go to Elizabeth not to trace out the threads between Paterson and America, or William Carlos Williams and Alexander Hamilton, but to recover from the September 11 hangover in the manner suggested several years ago by our president: shopping. The Ikea flagship superstore has its own highway sign from the I-95. Inside lies a Eurotrash wonderland or world trade center of affordable dining room sets, and colorful rugs, chairs, desks, lamps, and kids’ bedrooms made to look like dot.com start-up offices from the 1990s. Latino and South Asian families plunk down a few hundred dollars at a time as down payments on the dream.
What would Dr. Williams do with this material? Although not physically in Paterson, is this still within the idea-compass of his vision for Paterson? Is Paterson Paterson, is it Williams, Jersey, America, or what? Those are the questions of the great book. The Ikea cafeteria windows command the runways of Newark Liberty International Airport and the great superhighway processional sweeping across the Eastern Seaboard from Boston to D.C. Over Swedish meatballs dipped in lingonberry sauce, the sunset’s Kodachrome toxicity is spectacular as it swells over the lines of cars and sky-angled aircraft. Particulate magnifies the sun as it softens the cloud-banks and makes even junked brick factories seem dreamy and insubstantial.
In several important ways, Williams’ modern urban epic in Paterson defined itself against two major poetic projects of its era, the Europhilic Cantos of Pound and the Anglophilic verse of T. S. Eliot. Williams disliked Eliot’s approach and mocked his lifelong friend Pound for his anti-Semitism and Fascist sympathies in the run up to WWII. In a letter of March 18th, 1922, Pound asked Williams to donate $50 to a fund for poets to take a year off from their jobs to write in Europe. Eliot, who in Pound’s words was having a “break down,” naturally would be the first recipient. In this letter, Pound tells Williams of his implausible scheme to “run a yearly trip from america,” with “you one summer, Marianne [Moore] the next.” Williams sent Pound exactly half the sum requested. In his response, Williams high-spiritedly claimed he had gotten the money from “A Jew named Katz” who, ran the implication, was such a generous patron of the arts that he was willing to help give the author of “Gerontion” his financial backing.
Paterson was a defense of “American material” in the face of the abandonment of the United States, both as a home base and as a proper subject for poetry, by many American poets, especially Pound in Italy and Eliot in London. Not that Williams was provincial: he spent a great deal of time in Europe tending to his artistic (and other) proclivities. But the work he intended as his masterpiece was going to be Made in America, and the city of Paterson was its subject. In 1927 The Dial had awarded Dr. Williams its poetry prize after publishing his shorter poem “Paterson,” and he suggested in later reflections that
The thing was to use the multiple facets which a city presented as representatives for comparable facets of contemporary thought thus to be able to objectify the man himself as we know him and love him and hate him… Thus the city I wanted as my object had to be one that I knew in its most intimate details. New York was too big, too much a congeries of the entire world’s facets. I wanted something nearer home, something knowable.
In addition to celebrating, damning, and simply describing or recording Paterson, America, and himself, Williams was setting himself apart from his contemporaries’ Eurocentric ideals, like Pound’s drilling for ancient wisdom in the vortices of urban Europe. While Pound sifted through the historical sediments of European cultural accomplishment in the Cantos, Williams mockingly listed the layers of rock sediment—“2,000 feet…red shale”—found in a Paterson well. Paterson pieced his poetry together with a bewildering array of source materials from the life of his city, from the historical to the sublime to the ridiculous to the tragic, the prose of the world.
The collage technique of Paterson threw geological surveys in with newspaper clippings, letters, and lines like the following to break up the poetry: “American poetry is a very easy subject to discuss for the simple reason that it does not exist.” Williams had been saying, just a few lines earlier, “If it were only fertile. Rather, a sort of muck, a detritus…” Ah, Jersey. In reclaiming what had been junked—things passed over or rejected as befouled, useless, too new (New Jersey, New York), too gullibly American, by other poets—Williams was following Walt Whitman’s all-embracing view of New York as a new epicenter of cosmic importance in Leaves of Grass. And Frank O’Hara’s Manhattan poems would follow on from Williams’ riotous joy in the manifold details of American urban space.
The first extended quotation is from “Appendix A,” Paterson, revised edition_, edited by Christopher MacGowan, New Directions, p. 239. The second is from “A Statement by William Carlos Williams about the Poem ‘Paterson,’” May 31, 1951 (Paterson, revised edition, p. xiii). Special thanks to Shawn Spencer for driving me to Elizabeth. The artist friends mentioned in this essay belong to Flux Factory, a Queens-based nonprofit arts organization whose “Paterson Project,” an art event and exhibit aimed at creating a monument to the city, will run for six weeks this summer._