In the early 1950s, a great American poet penned a poem for a great American artist. The story goes: The poet, sitting in the artist’s studio, was tired of sitting still, posing for his portrait. So he took a break, picked up a sheet of Maillol paper and a pen, and jotted down a handful of lines. The end result was “The End of the Rope,” in which he paid tribute to “Walt and Ben.” The last lines read: Let’s say we’ve a little unraveled/the end of the rope/and go on from there. Walt, Ben/See you again Some day , signed by its author William Carlos W s, edited by a mouse.
William Carlos Williams and Ben Shahn first met on June tenth, 1950, when Williams and his wife visited the Shahns in Roosevelt, New Jersey, after the poet had received a doctor of letters degree from nearby Rutgers University. Both men, New Jerseyans, had championed in their art an intellectual understanding of their state’s historical significance, the narrative of its industry and its workers: Shahn had made a mural, depicting the story of Jersey Homesteads—with its roots in the New Deal, the small town (now known as Roosevelt) was founded in 1936 as a resettlement for immigrant families who had worked in New York City’s sweat shops; Williams, the medical doctor-cum-poet, wrote his five-book epic poem Paterson—once said to be Whitman’s America for the twentieth century—using the Jersey city as a symbol for modern man. So it was only fitting that on that summer day, with Williams having just completed Book Four, Shahn gave him a painting he had made of a factory building and tracks and titled Homage to Paterson. This, the start of their friendship. In Paterson’s Book Five, Williams would again mention Ben Shahn’s name within lines of his poetry.
Shahn was a singular artist who triumphantly melded together social realism with abstract design and mastered photography—working along side Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. He was also a gifted engraver. Apprenticed at age fourteen to a lithographer, he fell in love with the Roman alphabet and found “the wonderful interrelationships, the rhythm of line as letter moves into letter.” In 1963, he sat and admired “The End of the Rope” in Williams’s “scrappy” hand. He wrote, “I often wonder how many poets write in longhand… One might surmise that verse written to the staccato clack-clack of the typewriter might differ enormously from that written in the noiseless and rhythmic movements of the hand.”
Meanwhile a mouse had discovered Williams’s piece of poetry. Sometime between the poem’s birth and its reemergence a dozen years later, a mouse had resided in Shahn’s house. When Shahn took out from storage the exquisite artist’s paper with the poem, to have it reproduced in his Love and Joy About Letters, he saw the verse had been slightly revised. The mouse had nibbled away at the page, chewing to bits Williams’s “Williams” and, it’s been speculated, the last word of the last line See you again Some day “soon.”
 Ben Shahn, Love and Joy About Letters, 1963.
Additional sources: “William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963,” Poetry Foundation; William Carlos Williams and Christopher MacGowan, “The End of the Rope,” The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 2: 1939-1962, reprinted 1991; Paul Mariani, William Carlos Williams: A New World Naked, 1990; Frances K. Pohl with Ben Shahn’s Writings, Ben Shahn, 1993; Howard Greenfield, Ben Shahn: An Artist’s Life, 1998; “Oral history interview with Ben Shahn, 1964 April 14,” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Ben Shahn, Museum of Modern Art.
(Image, click to enlarge: “The End of the Rope” by William Carlos Williams for Ben Shahn, Love and Joy About Letters, 1963, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)