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Paterson, or History of the Cyborg as City
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Paterson is a long poem in four parts — that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody — if imaginatively conceived — any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions. Part One introduces the elemental character of the place. The Second Part comprises the modern replicas. Three will seek a language to make them vocal, and Four, the river below the falls, will be reminiscent of episodes — all that any one man may achieve in a lifetime.

— William Carlos Williams, “Author’s Note” to Paterson

[Note: This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.]

[Note 2: This is also very literary, and very weird.]

William Carlos Williams knew plenty about bodies. He was a pediatrician and general practitioner in Rutherford, NJ, and his great poem “To Elsie,” which begins “The pure products of America / go crazy —” moves seamfully from the flesh to aimless machines:

voluptuous water
expressing with broken

brain the truth about us–
her great
ungainly hips and flopping breasts

addressed to cheap
jewelry
and rich young men with fine eyes

as if the earth under our feet
were
an excrement of some sky

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car

And then there is the mighty fragment from Spring and All, “The rose is obsolete,” imagining a new, cubo-futurist symbol of beauty with the delicacy and strength of organic steel. We could go on.

But Paterson is the poem, the book to be reckoned with, which conceives of a body as a city and a city as a body and both as a flow of heteroclite information, the poem a machine containing them all.

To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.

Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.

And this is what we see in Paterson. The italicized faux-definition on the first page in verso calls it “an identification and a plan for action to supplant a plan for action… a dispersal and a metamorphosis” but also “a gathering up; a celebration.” In other words, a book.

To make a start,
out of particulars,
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means–

Or as he would write (and repeat) a handful of pages later, “–Say it, no ideas but in things–” which is to say (he tries to refine) “no ideas but in facts” but also:

Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter–

Paterson, whose ideas are themselves cities criss-crossing his streets in machines made from the mind, is both the Passaic Falls (“the outline of his back”) and the bridge thrown across those falls, and the men who dare each other to jump from the bridge, the women who mysteriously disappear, and finally the fragments of texts from newspapers and letters Williams gathers (the gathering at the same time a dispersal, a release of the information confined in the archive) to make the outline of his poem.

So far everything had gone smoothly. The pulley and ropes were securely fastened on each side of the chasm, and everything made in readiness to pull the clumsy bridge into position. It was a wooden structure boarded up on both sides, and a roof. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon and a large crowd had fathered — a large crowd for that time, as the town only numbered about four thousand — to watch the bridge placed in position.

That day was a great day for old Paterson. It being Saturday, the mills were shut down, so to give the people a chance to celebrate. Among those who came in for a good part of the celebration was Sam Patch, then a resident in Paterson, who was a boss over cotton spinners in one of the mills. He was my boss, and many a time he gave me a cuff over the ears.

Such prose fragments are dropped into the text of Paterson like stones in the Passaic Falls, or like Sam Patch’s body when, after a career of daredevil jumps inaugurated in Paterson (“a national hero”), it’s found frozen downstream after a jump from Niagara.

Sometimes the language is reincorporated later (or before) in the narrative (such as it is) of the poem. Williams describes Paterson as a search for language, the river like the language itself, many languages, bearing many kinds of information:

A false language. A true. A false language pouring— a
language (misunderstood) pouring (misinterpreted) without
dignity, without minister, crashing upon a stone ear.

And with this we are on the terrain of Claude Shannon’s mathematical cryptography, elaborated in the 1940s with the help of John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and others, just miles away, the engineering and metaphorical aspects of which fascinated Williams. In information theory, the medium of information is immaterial (both in the sense that is abstract and not relevant to the calculus), only its degree of distortion, compression, storage, and loss. Signals with(out) the codes to decipher them.

Once we can abstract from the medium, information does not need to be a letter, a photograph, or a radio wave. It can be a body, or the movement of bodies across a city, or any system, whether synthetic, organic, or hybrid.

Williams is known for his work as a physician, for his friendship with avant-garde artists, writers, and photographers in New York (the Williams-Marcel Duchamp-Man Ray friendship was especially fertile), but his interest in science and engineering was equally profound. In 1945, the year he forged Book One of Paterson, he received an honorary degree from the University of Buffalo, where he struck up a long conversation and fast friendship with Vannevar Bush, who that year would write “As We May Think“:

Among the rest the man Bush, the head of the atomic bomb project, was the most interesting to me. I liked him at once. It is amazing what he and his associates have accomplished—looked at simply as work, as brains. He seemed curious about me and was astonished to know I was a physician. I told him that I was deeply impressed by the sheer accomplishments of the persons on the platform. He replied that it took a lot of energy also to write books
(see T. Hugh Crawford, “Paterson, Memex, and Hypertext”)

How could we retrieve disconnected fragments, to make their hidden connections manifest? This was Williams’s problem as a poet, Bush’s as a researcher, Shannon’s as an engineer. To create a network of things — to roll up the universal out of particulars, and make what’s long kept in storage MOVE, faster than microfilm:

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed, in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. . . . Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path

Or as Williams writes in Paterson:

Texts mount and complicate them-
selves, lead to further texts and those
to synopses, digests and emendations

A new line, for a new mind; a new mind, to be the mind of a city.

The library, the library is on fire by Book III of Paterson:

Hell’s fire. Fire. Sit your horny ass
down. What’s your game? Beat you
at your own game, Fire. Outlast you:
Poet Beats Fire at Its Own Game! The bottle!
the bottle! the bottle! the bottle! I
give you the bottle! What’s burning
now, Fire?

The Library?

Whirling flames, leaping
from house to house, building to building

carried by the wind

the Library is in their path

Beautiful thing! aflame .

a defiance of authority
— burnt Sappho’s poems, burned
by intention (or are they still hid
in the Vatican crypts?) :
beauty is
a defiance of authority :

for they were
unwrapped, fragment by fragment, from
outer mummy cases of papier mâché, inside
Egyptian sarcophagi .

Knowledge cannot lie dead, buried in tombs, it must be transmitted, brought to action, by electrical means if necessary, by film if necessary, fire if necessary, every destruction a liberation, bearing with it the possibility of rebirth.

That is, at least — if one conceives of the body as something more than flesh — as network — as city. As a machine made of words.

A machine with a man inside.

September 14, 2010 / Uncategorized

2 comments

Beautifully executed. Well done.

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