June 7, 2017

William Carlos Williams and Jim Jarmusch in Paterson — The Poem as a Way of Life

By Stuart Mitchner

Thinking, writing, talking constantly about the poem as a way of life …. —William Carlos Williams, from  The Autobiography

Imagine pitching this idea to a Hollywood producer: “It’s a film about a week in the life of a New Jersey bus driver who writes poetry, he’s living with a lovely woman and her English bulldog and when he goes out at night to walk the dog, he stops by a bar and has a few beers.” Long pause. The producer is waiting to hear when does the guy hold up the bar or turn out to be a serial killer who leaves poems attached to his victims, or at least, when does the girl get raped or killed. No such luck. Nobody gets hurt, unless you count what happens to the notebook the bus driver writes his poems in. When the producer’s eyes stop rolling, he asks what happens to the notebook. “Sorry,” says the writer/director. “I don’t wanta give away the plot.” Then, seeing that the producer is hyperventilating, he fills him in: “It’s the dog. The dog’s jealous of the poet. His name is Marvin. He’s amazing. Looks like Winston Churchill after a full meal.” Pause. “It’s, like, a slice of life film about poetry and love and dogs and things like that.”

In the real world, Jim Jarmusch got all the backing he needed for his latest film, Paterson, and Marvin won the Palme Dog Award at Cannes for the best performance by a canine.

“A Beautiful Idea”

Several decades ago when I was writing a novel about poetry and love in an imaginary New Jersey city roughly based on a combination of Paterson and New Brunswick, I tried to read William Carlos Williams’s book-length poem Paterson (New Directions 1946-1958). In a TIME interview Jim Jarmusch admits that the book “goes over my head, I don’t understand a lot of it. But at the beginning of it, a man is a metaphor for the city of Paterson, and vice-versa. And I thought that’s just a beautiful idea.”

Me, too. That’s why I finally stuck with the book to the end, that and the idea of a renowned poet who was still practicing medicine when Paterson won the first National Book Award in 1950.

“No Ideas But in Things”

In a 1950 radio interview with Mary Margaret McBride, Williams recites “The Red Wheelbarrow,” after claiming that it’s the only one of his poems he knows by heart:

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


When he’s finished, Williams tells McBride that the poem’s message is a variation on the opening line of Keats’s Endymion, “A thing of beauty/is a joy forever.” After quoting Keats, the primary influence on his early work, Williams speaks of “the secret satisfaction” of finding things of beauty “in the commonest places if your eyes are open.”

“Thing” is a word to reckon with when reading Paterson. It’s there in the poem’s credo, which contains the seed of Jarmusch’s film: “Say it! No ideas but in things. Mr./Paterson has gone away/to rest and write. Inside the bus one sees/his thoughts sitting and standing.”

Evidence of the term’s adaptability is apparent in The Autobiography when Williams calls his fellow poet and Penn classmate Ezra Pound “the livest, most intelligent and unexplainable thing I’d ever seen.”

The Lunchbox

From what I’ve read of Williams’s autobiographical writings, I think he would approve of Jarmusch’s concept and the way the bus driver’s poetry is presented. Nicely, solidly, thingly played by an actor who happens to be named Adam Driver, Paterson is first seen not just writing a poem but literally holding it in his hand, fingering the thing, the object, a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches whose size, compactness, and design inform the love poem he’s composing for his beauteous Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). Next we see him in the driver’s seat of the bus a moment before starting it up for the day’s run, pen in hand, writing the poem in his “secret notebook.” He’s working at it again during a lunch break. The deliberation with which he pronounces and forms the words as he writes brings poetry down to earth in the everyday working world where his lunchbox displays a photo of beautiful Laura next to an image of grim Dante. When the TIME interviewer asked Jarmusch who his favorite poets were, Dante was at the top of the list because he “wrote in vernacular. He was writing in street language, so he was the equivalent, almost, of hip-hop. He was in the street.”

Driving a Poem

In his autobiography, Williams recalls how his first idea for Paterson was “to find an image large enough to embody the whole knowable world,” meaning that the “isolated observations and experiences” among the details of his life “needed pulling together to gain ‘profundity.’” The poet’s “business,” according to New Jersey’s most famous MD, was “to write particularly, as a physician works, upon a patient, upon the thing before him.” The line Williams quotes from John Dewey — “The local is the only universal, upon that all art builds” — also works for Jim Jarmusch. What could be more “local” than a bus driver thinking poetry as he follows his daily route, “the thing before him” a succession of city streets and shops and stops as his passengers get on and off (“these people … among whom” Williams sees himself “in the regularly ordered plateglass of his thoughts”). On Jarmusch’s bus, the passengers are more than “thoughts sitting and standing”; they have conversations that amuse and interest the driver. What makes Williams’s Paterson go over the heads of some readers is the abrupt, occasionally difficult to assimilate complexity of the material he brings on board. It’s not a comfortable ride. There are bumps, swerves, awkward turns, potholes aplenty in the form of vacancies, obscurities, seemingly random hairpin curves. Early on there’s a line that would have interested Jarmusch — “A man like a city and a woman like a flower — who are in love.” That’s the film in 15 words, until Williams adds “Two women. Three women./Innumerable women, each like a flower.”

The first and most problematic impediment, for me, comes with one of several letters from an anonymous woman who has been seeking Williams’s help and advice about her poetry. Such abrupt out-of-nowhere intrusions of another voice threaten to break the spell of the poem before it has time to take hold. What to make of a letter that begins “In regard to the poems I left with you; will you be so kind as to return them to me at my new address?” You wonder why this, and why so early and why after so singularly thematic a line (“…only one man — like a city”)? Are these letters the poet’s inventions? If not, where do they come from? Unless your copy has notes, it takes some online searching to find that Williams has incorporated portions of actual letters from a woman named Marcia Nardi. Which leaves you pondering the ethics of an established poet using personal communications in his own work without acknowledgment.

There’s nothing comparable in Jarmusch’s film unless you count the charming scene where Paterson listens to a poem read by a ten-year-old girl who finds it “awesome” that a bus driver has heard of Emily Dickinson. Later, Paterson mentions the incident to Laura and recites the girl’s poem, which was actually written by Jarmusch himself.

Open Borders

The imaginary Hollywood producer listening to a pitch for Paterson would have some issues with Laura. Like how did a Jersey bus driver end up living with this drop-dead beautiful foreigner? And what kind of a name is Golshifteh Farahani? She’s Iranian? From the Axis of Evil? Then how did she get into the country? Maybe she’s an ISIS plant? That would at least give some heft to the plotless plot.

If you’re familiar with Jim Jarmusch’s previous work you know that in his world the borders are always open, and it’s not America first, it’s America everywhere. In Paterson’s closing scene, the bus driver receives a soul-saving gift from a Japanese poet (Masatoshi Nagazse) visiting the city immortalized by his hero William Carlos Williams. There’s something like poetry in knowing that this is the same actor who visited the city immortalized by his hero Elvis Presley some 25 years earlier in Mystery Train. Such things happen in Jarmusch’s America, where an actress from Tehran who played in an underground rock band when rock music and singing by women were banned in Iran ends up as the devoted, deliriously creative, cupcake-baking lover of a bus driver in Paterson, N.J. (At one time forbidden to travel outside Iran, Farahani now lives in Paris.)

It’s likely that William Carlos Williams would have approved of Farahani, for there are versions of Laura all through his Paterson, including the one in Book Five who stops the poet in his tracks. She’s neither short, nor tall, nor old nor young; her grey eyes “looked straight before her,” her hair “gathered simply” behind her ears under “a shapeless hat” — and then she disappears, gone before he can ask her, “What are you doing on the streets of Paterson?” He has “a thousand questions” for her. Is she married, does she have any children, what’s her name, this “lonely and intelligent woman: “Have you read anything that I have written?/all for you.”