Paterson, The Examined Life and the Impotence of Greatness


In the interest of disclosure, I recently hosted a Slam tied to a screening of Paterson at the Curzon Soho. While this is mentioned in the article below, I want to state clearly that if I hadn’t enjoyed the film I wouldn’t have written about it.

I’ve been thinking about the new Jim Jarmusch film Paterson for the two weeks that have passed since I saw it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been thinking a lot, in my early middle age, about health and wisdom as things to aspire to instead of wealth and success. More pointedly though, I’ve been thinking of the nature of happiness, whether a happy life can be lived and how poetry can play a role in this. The younger me would have sneered at such a connection, preferring to cling to a seemingly pragmatic idea of the destructive power of poetry which was really, in essence, pure Romanticism.

Paterson is a film in which Adam Driver plays a bus driver called Paterson, who lives in the town of Paterson, who is also a poet whose hero is William Carlos Williams, who also lived in Paterson and wrote a poem called Paterson. That is pretty much the gist of it. The film follows Paterson over eight days, often returning to the same places and characters as each day unfolds.

Paterson wakes up next to his beautiful wife, kisses her and strokes her skin, checks his watch as she continues to sleep or reaffirms her intent to continue doing so. He walks to work via a local landmark where he works on poems in his notebook. He spends the day driving a bus, returning to the waterfall and his poems at lunchtime. He returns home to his beautiful wife to tell her about his day and ask after hers before eating her terrible cooking. Finally he heads out with their English bulldog to a local bar where a single beer is waiting for him. He then heads back home to find his beautiful wife who is already in bed. Each day continues along a similar vein with little differences and idiosyncrasies happening along the way. I’ll try not to spoil any more although the term spoiler doesn’t really apply. If Auden was right about poetry making nothing happen, then this is a film about poetry in which nothing really happens. A lot rides on that italicised really though.

There are often two senses in which you appreciate a film, or any work of art for that matter. The first is your immediate experience of the film as you are watching it and the second is how you put the film back together as you think about it afterwards. Sometimes you build on those first immediate experiences, sometimes you try to look beyond them to what you might have missed.

I have to confess that — due to the slow pace of the film coupled with the device of cutting it into eight episodic chunks — I found myself unable to resist the temptation to look at my own watch as Paterson checked his watch on waking each morning. However, as each day progressed I found myself dissolving my impatience into the dreamy drift of each of those episodes. Of course, I can at least say in my defence that I was running a Slam at the end of the screening, but the unavoidable issue was that my dependence in digital devices and social media had compromised my attentiveness. The character of Paterson, of course, is not in possession of a mobile phone, computer or any other digital crutch. The kind of school of poetry that he follows is more the ethos of William Carlos Williams and Basho rather than those tempestuous Romantics and Slammers. This ethos compells one to slow down and observe, something completely anathema to our always-on digital culture.

If Ghost Dog and Dead Man (two of my favourite Jarmusch films) are about death, the poetry of death and how to die well; then Paterson is a film about living, the poetry of living and how to live well. Not in the sense in which somone says they really feel alive after a bungie jump or narrowly escaping the police, but rather being alive by paying attention to things, steering clear of distraction, occupying each moment.

Perhaps I appreciated this aspect of the film because the screening at the Curzon Soho, and the Slam following it, were almost cancelled due to a power cut across the West End, from Seven Dials to Piccadilly Circus, effecting Soho and the south side of Oxford Street on Black Friday, of all days. Mobile receptions were also patchy, as everyone took to Twitter and Google to find out about what was happened and to sound off about it. So the slow, meditative film was preceded for me and the slammers by a couple of hours of candlelit uncertainty before the lights came back on at the eleventh hour and we were hurried back into the auditorium. We took great amusement in the online Evening Standard headline stating that London had been “plunged” into darkness. At the other end of things it felt slightly at odds with the maxim of the film (about writing poetry for self gratification rather than seeking the praise of others) to be running a competitive poetry event.

It made me appreciate the open mic I run all the more. While a big noise is made about the big names that have read at Poetry Unplugged before moving onto bigger things, I have always had more affection for the caretakers, psychiatric nurses, barkeeps and lawyers that share their work not out of a need for fame but simply because (in the words of John Lee Hooker) it was in ’em and it had to come out.

Here is something that defenders and detractors of the film might have missed. Paterson is not meant to be a great poet, nor one aspiring to greatness. He is simply someone that has unlocked the ability of poetry to bring meaning and even happiness to what many in this age would dismiss as an uninspired, quotidian existence. Laura, the character that I have hitherto described as Paterson’s beautiful wife (played with warmth and comical sincerity on the right side of Manic Pixie Dream Girl by Golshifteh Farahani), often tells Paterson that he is a great poet (as do most friends, parents, siblings and partners of novice poets) and that he should get his work out to the world rather than keep it written down solely in his notebook. Her chosen method of this is for him to get some copies made of them. Laura herself harbours aspirations of being a successful singer, gently pressuring Paterson into buying her a harlequin design acoustic guitar so that she can realise this ambition. But Paterson is obviously not motivated to get his work out there and be recognised for his greatness. He enjoys the quiet life and the writing of poetry is a part of that enjoyment. He finds inspiration in his one nightly beer or the brilliance of the new brand of matches that he and Laura have switched to. By superimposing the poems in Paterson’s handwritten script against the brilliant cinematic rendering of his day, we get a sense of what the bus driving bard is trying to express. Without this audiovisual accompaniment, the poems might indeed fall flat for the average reader but that wouldn’t really be the point of them. He’s really not writing them for us.

I treat the concept of greatness with a healthy dose of suspicion. Read the superlative nonsense on the back cover of any poetry collection and you’ll get a fair idea of what I’m getting at. The dominance of literary prizes and competitions in the dialogue about poetry is fairly responsible for this. The few genuine readers of poetry feel anxious about whether they are reading the right stuff and look to such things to keep on what they hope is the right track. Paterson seems to go against the grain of this and touches upon the crux of why collections like Staying Alive do so well in bypassing the aforementioned anxiety.

Normal people approach poetry when they feel disconnected and disappointed with their normal lives. They look to poetry to see if it will bring the magic back to their current situation or give them the inspiration to find something new. I can’t help but dwell on how Paterson highlights the difference between a metropolitan artisan class and the lives of most people, living and working in nondescript towns and suburbs.

If you are an artist working in a great city you are ironically at your most visible and capable of exposure while at the same time having very little to say that would have a meaningful impact on most people. I have no easy answers for this, but I think about it a lot. Watch this space.

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