What Paterson Gets Right About Poetry

Michael Thurston

Among the many pleasures of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson is what it gets right about poetry.

The film follows its title character, a bus driver in the eponymous New Jersey city, through a week that seems at once typical and catastrophic. Calling man and city by the same name, Jarmusch obviously cites William Carlos Williams, whose epic from the 1950s begins with the premise “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.” Williams appears throughout the movie: in a photograph of famous citizens tacked up behind the bar, in another over the character’s desk, in the books on that same desk and in the hand of a Japanese tourist, in a quotation uttered by a rapper working out rhymes in a laundromat (“No ideas but in things”). Williams is also present in such oblique references as Paterson’s occupation. Just as Williams writes “Inside the bus one sees / his thoughts sitting and standing,” Jarmusch shows Paterson writing poems as he waits to start his bus route and overhearing the city’s thoughts as they are expressed by passengers as they sit and stand. Just as Williams writes of “A man like a city and a woman like a flower / —who are in love,” Jarmusch shows a loving relationship characterized by constant acts of mutual care.

But, fun as they are, Williams references and presences are not what I have in mind. In Paterson, most importantly, Jarmusch shows why poetry matters to people for whom poetry matters. Elsewhere representations of poets and poetry tend to position poetry outside of, or against. regular life. They tend to hinge on the narrative of career, the coming into public visibility of the poet through publication. They tend to envision poetry as the dramatization or expression of emotion, as the desperate crying out of the poet’s self and presence. Paterson avoids such traps and tropes. Instead, we see poetry as continuous with and produced in and from everyday life. We see poetry as a practice whose value is intrinsic, independent of (maybe even antithetical to) publication or career. And we see poetry as a mode of attention focused on the world, not a claim for attention demanded by the poet.

Paterson writes in a notebook (the poems he writes were written by the second-generation New York School poet, Ron Padgett). He carries the notebook with him to work. Sitting in the bus as he prepares for the day, he writes a line. Sitting at the Passaic River’s waterfall and eating lunch, he writes a line. Even when he is not writing in the notebook, we see and hear him working on the poems, adding a half-line in his head as he walks to the bus depot or as he walks home. Sure, he spends some time writing in his basement too. But poetry, for Paterson, is not an activity separate from the rest of his routines. Indeed, its importance for him seems in part precisely that it is one of his routines. Routine figures prominently in this film, and Jarmusch subtly suggests—with framing shots of a photo showing Paterson in a U.S. Marines dress uniform, with his deft disarming of a distraught patron at the bar—that routine has a therapeutic value or necessity for this man.

Paterson writes in a notebook. He does not type his poems up and send them out. When urged by his partner to make a copy, he demurs. Even when he promises to do so, he procrastinates. Poetry for him is not about publication, much less publicity. The value of the poems is not in their circulation as commodity or as means of professional advancement. The value of the poems is in their making. Even when something happens to the notebook (that’s only a spoiler if you don’t realize that its uniqueness, like Chekhov’s gun appearing in the first act, is destined for destructive resolution), it’s a shock, not a tragedy. Sure, those poems are gone and it’s sad they were not shared or saved. Yet as the movie’s resolution strongly suggests, Paterson will keep writing poems, and their value will continue to be found in the act of writing

Such continuity is important because it clarifies that the technology of poetry is—for Paterson, for Jarmusch, for Paterson—not for self-expression (for that, you need an audience), but, instead, for attending to the world. We see this from the beginning, when Paterson examines a matchbox as he eats breakfast and a poem grows slowly from this careful act of observation. This poem is not a proclamation of the self’s existence, feelings, sufferings, or importance. It is a manifestation of attention focused on things outside the self. It is a mode of contact with the world, of being in the world. And this is true even when a poem goes on to be called “Love Poem.” It’s true even when a poem ends with an expression of feeling (“I look down at the glass / and feel glad”), because the poem grounds that conclusion in its meditation on our ways of understanding the world (in an increasing number of dimensions), and in worldly cause (looking into one’s beer glass). We see this in Paterson’s obvious admiration for a poem shared with him by a young girl he meets: she has captured, through her verbally inflected attention, a facet of experience that alters his perception of something as simple as rain. The first lines he writes in a new notebook neither lament the loss of the last one nor to advertise the poet’s resilience and capacity to go on. Instead, Paterson—like Paterson—turns to poetry as itself a means of resilience, as the enactment of our capacity to go on.

Michael Thurston is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College.