DR. WILLIAMS’ PORTUGUESE MASON
The author of the poetic tribute to a Portuguese immigrant in New Jersey quoted below is the widely revered and much honored physician-poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). Of the first rank among twentieth-century poets of the United States, Williams combined a long and taxing career as a working physician (today he would be considered a specialist in family practice) with an equally demanding and equally rewarding career as a man of letters. He was a prolific producer of stories, plays, novels, critical and historical essays, reviews, prefaces and manifestos, but he continues to be known best for his poetry, the corpus of which includes examples of most of the major forms of poetry ranging from the traditional sonnet to the experimental epic.
Paterson (1946-1958) is Williams’ impressively ambitious try at composing, at mid-twentieth-century, a modern epic for the United States, one consilient with his view of figures and episodes important, not just to the history of the United States but to that of all the Americas writ large, that he assembled into the highly original and deeply personal book he entitled In the American Grain (1925). Paterson can be seen as the poetic complement to that prose work. “Paterson is Whitman’s America,” the poet Robert Lowell has written, a nation “grown pathetic and tragic, brutalized by inequality, disorganized by industrial chaos, and faced with annihilation. No poet has written of it with such a combination of brilliance, sympathy and experience, with such alertness and energy.”
Radical in form-Paterson incorporates several types of literary discourse, from geological reports to personal letters to footnotes and lyrics in the traditional forms-the poem, in its overall import, is nevertheless conservative in the historical sense of that word, celebrating what was valuable in the past. Some of the principal episodes in Paterson are set in and around Rutherford, New Jersey, where the poet made his home and earned his living for more than five decades. It is a local incident that provides Williams with his Portuguese mason’s words on the value of an artisan’s pride in his craftsmanship. This passage, comprised of the poet’s praise for the paintings of Brueghel followed by the introduction of Williams’ Portuguese mason, is excerpted from Paterson. Book 5, Section 3.
It is no mortal sin to be poor-anything but this featureless
tribe that has the money now-staring into the atom, com-
pletely blind-without grace or pity, as if they were so many
shellfish. The artist, Brueghel, saw them . : the
suits of his peasants were of better stuff, hand woven, than we
-have come in our time to the age of shoddy, the men are
shoddy, driven by their bosses, inside and outside the job to
be done, at a profit. To whom? But not true of the Portuguese
mason, his own boss “in the new country” who is building a
wall for me, moved by oldworld knowledge of what is “virtu-
ous” . “that stuff they sell you in the stores nowa-
days, no good, break in your hands . that manufac-
tured stuff, from the factory, break in your hands, no care
what they turn out . . .”)
George Monteiro is Professor Emeritus of English and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University, and he continues as Adjunct Professor of Portuguese Studies at the same university. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–Sao Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, and Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop and Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot.
Picture of Dr. William Carlos Williams from http://cmspoets.edublogs.org/files/2010/05/williams.gif