Let us consider Paterson as a moral poem, by which I mean a poem that discusses the idea of morality, rather than a poem that takes any kind of stance about the morality of an idea or an action. In Paterson, Williams is specifically interested in the ways that morality influences poetry (and by extension, all art), the development of cities (and of the men who inhabit them), and the way that the developments of new modes of thought, especially as they are expressed through the arts, recreate or destroy morality.
The vessels which Williams speaks through is Dr. Paterson and the city of Paterson, New Jersey, with the understanding that the man is a manifestation of the city, and that the city is an extension of the man’s brain. Neither the man nor the metropolis exists firmly on one end or the other of the moral spectrum. Though the character of Paterson is a doctor, his actions, such as the t are insensitive and even cruel. Likewise, Paterson’s citizens commit all manner of actions, from walking the tightrope and attending the circus to committing random acts of violence upon their neighbors.
Much of what Paterson does in the poem goes without authorial censure, and although that could be partially due to how autobiographical Paterson is, I think that Williams is intentionally refraining from commenting on the actions of his creations. Williams’ treatment of his character is fairly amoral. Paterson’s actions, the publication of the letters from C. for instance, or his liaison with Phyllis in book IV, aren’t bad or good. They simply are. Similarly, the actions of the town folk of Paterson are presented via newspaper articles and dry local histories. In all places, no matter the subject matter, these anecdotes from the town’s history are presented as matter of factly as possible. The torture of Native Americans by the white garrison, and the tallying of an elderly dead man’s property are related in the same, detached style.
This is not to say, of course, that Williams does not want his audience to form an opinion about Paterson’s morality based on the actions committed by the man or the town. The inclusion of such incriminating details is clearly a goad to provoke a reaction in the readers. I would even venture to say that Williams didn’t much care about what kind of reaction he provoked, as long as he got his audience measuring his treatment of a scene against their moral barometers, and rechecking their barometers when their results are less than satisfactory.
We touched on this next point in class, but I’ll summarize it to the best of my ability. Some of Paterson the man’s actions that we found to be the most repellant were committed in the creation of art. Specifically I refer to the publication of letters to Paterson (via Williams) by a colleague. Williams includes these letters, partially to explain what he values in literature, partly to illustrate the character of Paterson, and certainly to make a point about the role of morality in the creation of art. It is easy to read these letters and to assume that Williams felt no qualms about publishing personal letters as part of his poem, to conclude that he believes that art occupies some place beyond human morality. However, I really hate being manipulated, and after that stunt Williams pulled earlier by forcing us to reevaluate the morality of reprehensible actions, I can’t accept that simple explanation. Instead, let us consider the possibility that Williams explicitly wants us to challenge the assumption that art exists beyond moral scrutiny.
Williams’ inclusion of the Symonds’ conclusion, that the ancient Greek authors used irregular and deformed verse to show that the subject of those verses was similarly deformed, is the key to understanding Paterson as a moral poem. Williams has no set form that he returns to, no meter or rhyme scheme that would tell the reader this is good, this is normal, and this is moral. By writing in “deformed verse” William signals to the reader that what they will read will not conform to what is moral, and by writing only in deformed verse, Williams places every part of the poem, from the burning of the Library to the preacher in the park, onto the same moral footing. In a sense, he has pressed a restart button; the reader is free to evaluate and decide upon the value of each component, but they must do so without the benefit of prior moral judgments.
This, to me, sounds like a clear call for the readers to reevaluate morality, with the understanding that a moral reaction may no longer be relevant or useful, and that perhaps it should be discarded.
So is Paterson a moral poem? I would say yes, not because it takes a stance, but because it forces the audience to reconsider and challenge their own stances on what is moral.