Poets in Paterson

Mundane patterns and intimate Paterson moments


in Features


Chances are you have rarely seen a movie that draws substantially on the work of a major American poet. But this can change if you find a theater that is showing Paterson. This conditional, however, only doubles the unlikelihood. Even in greater New York, the movie had limited appearances. As Hollywood turns out innumerable examples of stupefying violence, inane plotting, and simplistic characterizations, the unlikelihood of poetry on the big screen outstrips even the remotest possibility. Yet somehow we find ourselves tenderly watching Jim Jarmusch’s subtle masterpiece. One of my fellow viewers remarked how odd that the movie didn’t contain a single car crash or large explosion. Yet what it had in plain sight was something like the spirit of William Carlos Williams, often referred to as WCW, the great modernist poet and doctor who spent most of his life as a general practitioner in the once-industrial town of Paterson, New Jersey.

The movie shows us how the spirit of WCW’s poetry is embodied in a bus driver, played with taste and control by Adam Driver. The low-key plot proceeds with an almost structuralist clarity. As Driver goes through his week from Monday to Sunday, we see him fall into a strict pattern. He awakens without the benefit of an alarm clock, each weekday beginning with a glancing look at his wristwatch; the hour is between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m. He arises, pulling himself out a bed made supremely normal and comfortable by the presence of his beautiful wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). There on a chair next to the bed is his driver’s uniform, washed fresh and ironed each evening by his solicitous helpmate. A short breakfast (some featuring Cheerios), and then, carrying a tin lunch pail, he walks along leafy suburban streets. Walks that is, until he passes through an abandoned run of brick factories and warehouses — until he arrives at the bus depot. There, before he begins his route, which takes him through downtown Paterson, he spares a few moments to jot down poems in a notebook, the words appearing on the bottom of the screen in a clear, evenhanded script.

The main activity that lifts his day, besides writing his poems, is his overhearing of the conversations of his passengers; in a sense, his bus route is his muse. These conversations metamorphose into his poems, just as the real WCW would compose his poems on a typewriter, pulling it up from under his desk in between consultations with his patients. What we slowly realize, in part because of Jarmusch’s pacing, is that the ordinariness of Paterson’s day leads to an intimacy, as plainness becomes the overriding esthetic. WCW’s chief aesthetic notion was in his dictum, “No ideas but in things.” By things he meant, and Paterson demonstrates, that “things” are not only the physical objects of the world but all its physical bodies and conversations and interactions and implicit thoughts and summaries and insights. All those objects make up a world full of the many remnants, echoes, and ideas that are waiting to be thought about.

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At least five or six times, a scene opens by placing along one edge of the screen a pair of twins, ranging from young girls to old men. A friend who urged me to see the movie remarked on one of its odd features — he called the use of twins “hilarious and touching,” which is quite accurate. But it requires some thought or at least a prolongation of insight. Jarmusch doesn’t comment or pick out the pair, instead suggesting that the oddness of such a remarkable human phenomenon is there and yet unremarkably so. It is like the changes in a canon or fugue, where one “note”-like object follows another and makes it more routine and yet questions its principle of identity. What looks alike is alike and yet different. What amuses us is our readiness to say we get it, while what touches us is the twins’ passivity, since they have learned to live altogether normally with what we often find quite bizarre.

Yet even as Paterson allows his environment to come into his daily routine and his poems, he also silently witnesses (or barely notices), regular events just outside the scope of his awareness. Some of these are like physical comedy, routines that evoke automatic responses. Some use wordplay, as when Laura renames the tutelary poet “Carlo Williams Carlos,” gently mocking Paterson’s deep respect for his distant mentor, yet also making an odd name just a bit odder. Some events involve his pet bulldog, Marvin, who will come to play a key role in the movie. From the first, Marvin shows great thespian abilities. Laura talks to him in baby talk, but Paterson remains skeptical and withdrawn. The tilting mailbox outside the couple’s plain one-story house is half tipped over every day when Paterson returns home. Marvin, we find out, is the culprit, for, at every opportunity to rush outside without a leash, he nudges the mailbox until its stand tilts over about 45 degrees. Each day, Paterson patiently stands it back up.

The routine by which Paterson begins his workdays extends into the later part of the day, and so resembles the comic events scattered about. Every evening after dinner — lovingly prepared by Laura — Paterson takes Marvin for a walk, sedulously tying him up outside the tavern while he enjoys a measured amount of beer. The tavern hosts, as it were, several scenes, all of them staged against a very plain setting and each marked by a quiet consideration among the patrons. These scenes are stage-managed by the bartender, who curates the back wall filled with mementos and photographs of famous sons of Paterson; the biggest celebrity is Lou Costello, and there is even a park named after him and a bronze stature of the lovable comedian proudly displayed in its center.

In the tavern, Paterson extends the ambit of his bus route in terms of hearing about the lives of others, and occasionally being involved in them. The most dramatic story involves Maria and Everett, two star-crossed lovers whose obvious incompatibility doesn’t cool Everett’s longing. This culminates in his threatening suicide when Maria’s rejection proves adamant, but the gun he holds to his head is wrenched away by Paterson. What is staged as a tense melodrama turns to farce when the patrons discover the gun was capable of shooting only sponge pellets. Jarmusch seems to suggest that overheard conversations on a bus are less dramatic but contain more poetry than friendships and broken hearts in a tavern.

But the sorrows and losses of everyday life take place for Paterson in a world where twin boys can question the reputation of a long ago prize fighter, Hurricane Carter, or two men in their 20s can swap accounts of each one’s failure to score with a woman who seemed so promising. This range of stories and poems-as-stories reaches into all the corners of Paterson’s mind and the warrens of the city itself. Each small story has elements of tenderness and curiosity and fellowship. Most puzzling are the events briefly narrated by Paterson’s fellow bus driver, Donny (Rizwan Manji), who reels off a list of medical and psychological problems afflicting his family and neighbors with something like Biblical-level retribution. On the other hand, one day he comes in and seems totally unaffected or unchallenged by any of yesterday’s problems. Paterson acts as little more than a sympathetic ear, yet we in the audience wonder how this could go on while surely we see that Donny has some sort of near-magical form of self-protection. It isn’t, it can’t be, an emanation of the ordinary, yet it is all absorbed into the ordinary.

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Two of WCW’s most famous short poems play a role in the movie. The one called “This is Just to Say” enjoys a recitation by Paterson as Laura listens carefully and confirms it is one of her favorites. It ends with that densely physical image after the speaker has “eaten / the plums / that were in / the ice box”, and which were probably being saved for breakfast, Paterson declaims in conclusion that “they were delicious / so sweet / and so cold.” The other masterful lyric is “The Red Wheelbarrow”: “So much depends / upon // a red / wheel / barrow // glazed with rain / water // beside the white / chickens.” The openness of the start, the way “depends” invites easy contemplation, the way each noun — barrow, water, and chickens — has an adjective pressed against it, the startling rightness of “glazed,” the quiet elegance of the colloquial tone, all of this captures WCW’s everydayness passing into intimacy. (What exactly is the “so much” that depends?) When I took down my Collected Earlier Poems and began re-reading, I also felt that two out of every three poems could serve as a gloss on the movie.

Even as she volubly encourages Paterson to send his poems out for publication, Laura has her own artistry. She’s a painter obsessed with a single color combination: black and white. She paints all sorts of things with it; the shower curtain, the walls of the house, even the chocolate cupcakes she bakes and successfully sells are adorned with a black and white frosting. Demonstrating her innocence and her determination, she decides to become — or to start on a career as — a country singer. In pursuit of this, she finds a guitar on eBay, costing over $200. Fittingly, it bears a black-and-white veneer on its sound box. Paterson winces at the price, but he’s pleased when she learns to play the first part of a simple melody. As a character, she’s idealized and improbable. If Paterson’s affective world is a mix of mundane innocence and the otherworldly, Laura has become his perfect counterpart. Jarmusch conveys Paterson’s character by mixing Wim Wenders and Jacques Tati. Laura appears modeled on a mix of early Katherine Hepburn and the young Natalie Portman. A multitude of cinematic idioms and styles echoes throughout the movie.

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I felt that Jarmusch was rehabilitating any number of Hollywood tropes. One scene where Jarmusch plays with the motif of the ingénue occurs when Paterson, walking home, as usual, notices a beautiful young girl sitting up against a factory wall; soon she begins to remind us of the girl at the end of La Dolce Vita. Paterson senses she needs protection and he stops to talk to her. Her mother has not abandoned her after all but is merely engaged in a chore nearby. Paterson and the girl, who goes unnamed, begin to chat and the subject soon turns to poetry. The girl says she is a poet and offers to read one of her poems. Paterson reacts not by looking stunned or covering her with praise, but instead, just listens and approves. The poem, about falling water (which anticipates a future scene), has a casual double metaphor at its center, whereby falling hair becomes water becomes rain; it reads very like one of Paterson’s lyrics, but with a note of youth that seems perfectly appropriate. This interlude could easily be seen as the emotional and filmic center of the movie, especially considering the way the mundane moment on the walk home evokes an intimate recognition, as conversation leads on to poetry.

The film manages to maintain Paterson’s lightness of spirit without seeing him as tranquilized. Much of this lightness lifts his tone and pace, managed by Jarmusch’s deft touch with comedic “bits.” The recurrent appearance of the various pairs of twins, the antics of Marvin, the tilted mailbox, all of these have models in show business and classic Hollywood cinema, but the way they’re set up keeps them from becoming kitsch. (Another allusive thread reaches back to the comedy of Harold Lloyd.) This special sense of comedy intermingles the film’s repeated progression from the mundane to the intimate with the aesthetics of WCW. That progression is there from the opening shot. Paterson’s regard for his watch, like a beacon of duty, slowly shifts into a lingering tenderness as he caresses his wife, and we see and feel the reality principle crunch against the pleasure principle. This modest scene of ethical and personal tension carries Paterson along, and we see his walk to work each day (repeated with slight variation in the build up of the shots and angles) becomes like a Pilgrim’s Progress or the man in Hawthorne’s “Wakefield.” Hawthorne’s protagonist, a man of great regularity, ends with a form of nihilism as his everyday routine is obliterated by its sameness and the meekness of his neighbors. But Paterson prevails.

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The film’s two penultimate sequences capture his victory. The first of these features a visit to the bench where Paterson watches over the waterfall of the city, beneath an iron bridge whose scale and plain majesty is the film’s most excessive gesture. The visitor, improbably, is a Japanese poet, drawn into unlikely tourism by affection for WCW’s poetry. Paterson is unable or reluctant to connect with him, but rather patiently lets him reveal himself and his situation. After a casual chat about WCW and the burden of translation (which becomes a stand-in for all poetic composition), the visitor offers Paterson a blank notebook. This symbolic forging of confraternity made despite Paterson’s reluctance to admit he, too, is a poet, seals a friendly gesture full of meaning. The meaning is full because the gift counters the pain of Paterson’s recent discovery: His working notebook, which contains all the poems we’ve heard him write, has been torn to shreds the day before by none other than Marvin. Laura works hard to console Paterson, Marvin looks almost guilty, and Paterson’s restricts himself to one comment addressed to the dog: “I don’t like you” (said almost without malice). Paterson’s wan self-control, as a sign of its merit, receives the gift of the notebook as if it were a new place, a space for writing, where his poems can come into the world.

The last shot of the movie closes its structure. Having moved from Monday to Sunday and on to the Monday that begins the next week, we are shown Paterson again awakening for yet another cycle of work and new poems. In a touching overhead shot, we see the bed again, where Paterson has left for work and left behind the lovely Laura. She’s the embodiment of the pleasure principle, but here, posed in her intimate aloneness, chastely covered by ordinary bedclothes. Muse, wife, fellow artist, fan of Carlo Williams Carlos, she is what everyday Paterson leaves and returns to, the sure promise of ordinary beauty. •

Images used are screenshots from the film.


Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).