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Revisiting the Origin of Poetry, Through 'Paterson'

Kunal Ray
May 23, 2020
In the character's verse perhaps lies the future roadmap for poetry – egalitarian, inclusive, non-hierarchical.

In 2016, the inimitable Jim Jarmusch made a hauntingly meditative film called Paterson. I saw it again during the ongoing lockdown, stranded at home with very little to do and enjoying the luxury of cinema. The film is resplendent with beautiful poems, but it will also be remembered for its treatment of silence.

Jarmusch treats silence as if it were a perennially work-in-progress poem. It resides in the life and dealings of the eponymous central character, who is like Eliot’s Prufrock – shy, awkward, observant. Prufrock knew the women he loved but couldn’t bring himself to propose love. I wonder how Paterson managed that.

The film is set in Paterson, New Jersey, which looks like a ramshackle town. The central character, also called Paterson, is a bus driver who writes poetry during his lunch break. I tried but couldn’t think of other films featuring a bus driver poet. He is a working class poet, albeit not part of the protesting, angry, rebellious masses. There are no type characters in Jarmusch’s films. Quietness is Paterson’s singular strength. He is named after the town where he lives and grew up. The intimacy in his poems is unmistakable.

Paterson leads a fairly mundane life. He wakes up every morning, eats cereals, walks to the bus depot, tries to write a few lines before work, eavesdrops on conversations in the bus, walks back home, eats dinner with his wife, takes the dog for a walk, stops to drink beer at the local bar and goes back home. His wife, who dreams of being a successful country singer, often tells him that she likes it when he smells of beer.

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This is the routine that Paterson observes five days a week. On weekends, he wakes up late and catches an occasional film with his wife at the local theatre. He writes poems in a working man’s journal, in a working man’s handwriting. No cursive writing or beautifully embroidered notebooks for Paterson. Everything about him is quotidian. There is no escaping his working class reality. Paterson knows it and so do we, as viewers of the film. Paterson doesn’t write poems to change the world. He has no wooly notions about poetry.

Paterson walks a lot – to work, from work to home, to the local bar. While walking, he is observant. He thinks poetry. He mulls over his lines. In a small room on the ground floor of his modest house, he keeps his poetry books and hangs a portrait of his favourite poet, William Carlos Williams. Anyone who knows Williams would also know that he wrote an epic poem called ‘Paterson’ to capture the quiet life of the town.

Some would also remember him as the writer of that absolutely perplexing verse called ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, which continues to dumbfound students across poetry classrooms. Williams hailed from the same area. He was a well-known medical practitioner who enjoyed talking to his patients. His poems often looked like prescriptions – brief, spare, precise. His wife said that he would return from work every evening and quietly disappear into his study to write poems in utmost privacy. Perhaps he rushed to capture what he heard through the day in his poetry.

Williams is the reigning deity of the film. His memory is repeatedly evoked. Paterson, the central character of the film, is so deeply moved by Williams that he struggles to fight back tears while reading ‘This is Just to Say’ to his wife in the kitchen while she is labouring over cupcakes. The poem reads –

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Is this a poem or a humdrum conversation? When I read it for the first time, I was deeply stunned by its simplicity. It reports an event – the eating of the plums – in the most matter-of-fact way. The reporting happens in a language spoken by the common folks in the US who are not prone to crafting their speech for the need of poetry. Perhaps this made Paterson and many like him realise that poetry doesn’t require a special diction. That people like Paterson could also write poetry. Paterson did not learn to deconstruct poetry in a classroom, after all. He found teachers and mentors in the poets he read – Emily Dickinson, Frank O’Hara to name a few.

Poets like Williams found a new aesthetic for poetry. They made us aware of the poetic potential of our immediate surroundings, in the objects of daily use, the drama in the most insignificant occurrence amongst other things. They told us that poetry could accommodate all. Poetry doesn’t discard, it only knows to accept. They showed that the ordinary is infused with the poetic. Poetry doesn’t have to invent grandiose settings or events and all kinds of people could exist in poetry. Poetry springs from the everyday. In a sense, they made the idea of poetry more democratic by refusing to subscribe to hierarchic standardisations and gentrification of poetry.

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All the poems that Paterson writes in the film contain an element of the everyday. He writes the way he speaks. The spoken word becomes the poem. There is no place for the decorative or the ornate in his writing. What Paterson sees or feels becomes the poem. On a solitary walk back home, he meets a little girl who reads a poem to him. Paterson cannot get the poem out of his head. The sounds and sights that he encounters resurface in his poetry. His first poem featured in the film is about blue matchsticks that they use in the house. His poems bear his working-class reality.

Paterson did not study literature. He is not part of the intellectual circles of the US. Yet he is a poet. He hasn’t published his poems. Perhaps he never will. His wife repeatedly insists that he must. Does publication alone make you a poet? His quiet joy from poetry is self-contained. His poetry is not born out of institutional training of creative writing. He writes about the life he leads; the life he knows, the life that may not change.

This is poetry of self-recognition. He values his feelings and writes with unmatched honesty, which is the origin of poetry. In his verse perhaps lies the future roadmap for poetry – egalitarian, inclusive, non-hierarchical.

Kunal Ray teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.

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