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Examine the ‘meaning of measure’ in the poetry of William Carlos Williams.

Examine the ‘meaning of measure’ in the poetry of William Carlos Williams.

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This essay attempts to understand what William Carlos Willaims means when he speaks of measure by focusing on the epic 'Paterson'. It confronts the many challenges inherent in such a study and is a defense of his poetry's form but also illustrates how as a poet he failed in his desire to create an American verse indepedent of European tradition.
This essay attempts to understand what William Carlos Willaims means when he speaks of measure by focusing on the epic 'Paterson'. It confronts the many challenges inherent in such a study and is a defense of his poetry's form but also illustrates how as a poet he failed in his desire to create an American verse indepedent of European tradition.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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05/13/2014

 
Examine the ‘meaning of measure’ in the poetry of William Carlos Williams. Youshould analyse 2 poems
or
concentrate on the selections from
 Paterson
in theAnthology.The poetics of William Carlos Williams are greatly contested amongst literaryanalysts despite the extensive critical commentary provided by the poet himself.However few will disagree that the central objective in his writing is the uncorruptedarticulation of reality. This objective rooted somewhat in Williams’ early involvementwith the Imagist Movement is clearly reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s poetic theoryregarding the “direct treatment of the ‘thing’” (Solt 312). It is an objective bestoutlined by Mary Ellen Solt who remarks; “his goal in the poem is the articulation of experience directly perceived in the particular…so intensely apprehended andaccurately expressed that language arrives at a state of revelation” ( 308). Of coursethis is not his only objective and does not always find manifestation in his poetry, particularly towards the end of his life. However it remains a consistent theme in hiswriting, eclipsing all other agendas and its pursuit is the source of perhaps the mostmemorable qualities of his work, namely his unique ‘measure’. In order to do noviolence to actuality, Williams fervently believed that the representation, nayimitation of American reality
1
, necessitated a new form of poetry in terms of language, line and measure. America was after all, Williams reminds us, “a newworld” and “Americans a new race”, yet ill-equipped with the poetic means to expresstheir new surroundings (Miller 17). Therefore, Williams, tapping into the MAKE IT NEW ethos of modernism embarked on a quest, as dramatised in
 Paterson,
to invent anew measure, eliminate “the iambic cottages in a row” and rescue those who currently“die incommunicado”(Solt 312). Yet while the motivation for this is clear, his concept
1
(Williams’ rejecting the Aristotelian concept of poetry as a mirror to nature -see H. Miller.)
1
 
of ‘measure’ remains elusive. Consequently this essay will attempt to procure such anunderstanding, by focusing on his epic
 Paterson.
While it would be more beneficial toconduct such a study with reference to a selection of poems taken from each stage of Williams’ career, these selections from Book I and Book II of 
 Paterson
; ‘TheDelineaments of the Giants’ and ‘The Descent’ will suffice. It will be argued that‘measure’ as a flexible term can be understood as a temporal unit, a visual unit, asyntactical unit, and a unit of contemplation all three dependent on Williams’measured typography.Before analysing and illustrating the different components of William’s‘measure’, it is necessary to examine Williams’ poetic theory and the challengesfacing those attempting to understand what he means by ‘measure’. For Williams thenew line must be recovered from stoginess”(Miller 16). As “a new world / is only anew mind” Williams argues that the old forms and styles were no longer appropriateto America, and acted as “a constant barrier between the reader and his consciousnessof immediate contact with the world”(Miller 15) . “The language, the language failsthem”, he reiterates in
 Paterson,
akin to Conrad’s “horror” lament from his novel
 Heart of Darkness
(220). Williams however only has to focus on inventing a newmeasure and not eliminating the old, given the destructive groundwork carried out byWalt Whitman and his “devil-may-care disregard for poetry’s long use of forms”(Williams 2). Williams like Pound acknowledges Whitman as his literary forefather,as would later generations of American poets, seen again years later “poking amongthe meats in the refrigerator” in the verse of Allen Ginsberg, Williams’ protégé (59).Stephen Tapscott also observes how in
 Paterson,
a poem about generations andinheritance (Pater-son), “Whitman resembles the historical-geological giant who2
 
hovers over the city” listening to the sound of the Passaic river, the voice of America(291).Yet Williams, in agreement with Pound believes Whitman’s work to beincomplete. “After him” he explains, “there has been for us no line and there will benone until we invent it”. (Conarroe 133). He was ardently opposed to free verse and bluntly argued that it “does not exist” as “by freeing verse the poet makes the poemformally non-existent”. Measure is consequently fundamental to his poetry but heargues “we have to return to some measure but a measure consonant with our timeand not a mode so rotten that it stinks” condemning in this regard Pound and Eliotwho have reverted “to classical norms …missing Whitman on the way”( W1). Thiscomplex dilemma, common to the modernist age and discussed extensively by Eliot isat the heart of 
 Paterson
as Williams walks the tightrope between anarchy andtradition; a dilemma outlined by Peter Child who writes; "there were paradoxical if not opposed trends towards revolutionary and reactionary positions, fear of the newand delight at the disappearance of the old, nihilism and fanatical enthusiasm,creativity and despair." (59).This is clearly visible in
 Paterson
.Williams does not always walk steadily between both worlds and frequentlyfalls trap to tradition. The opening prose line for example follows a rough accentual-syllabic pattern containing three dactyls; “Paterson lies in the valley under the PassaicFalls” (219). Then again to illustrate the movement of the waterfall he employssyllables quite effectively, the line “rise rock-thwarted and turn aside” contains threealliterative stressed syllables followed by four soft syllables. A subsequent run-on-linemeanwhile; “glass-smooth with their swiftness” contains sibilant sounds and,depending on how it is read, either four soft balanced stresses or no stresses, bothinterpretations illustrating the water’s smooth pace (224). Aside from traditional3

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