“A Step Up and Away for Jim Jarmusch”
In my 2013 essay, “A Step Away from the Cinema: Hollywood and the Poetry of Frank O’Hara,” I attempt to theorize the relationship between the acute attention to everyday materiality in the poetry of the 1950s New York School and the normal visual operations of the cinema. In his latest film, Paterson (2016), Jim Jarmusch pushes more than one step further, building his normative brand of observational cinema into a grandiose meditation on the importance of poetry in contemporary American life.
Presented as eight subsequent days in the life of a public transit bus driver in the decaying town of Paterson, NJ, the film’s vignettes swirl around our protagonist, also named Paterson (Adam Driver). The film is thus about both a person named Paterson and the eponymous town; the man and the place cannot be disentangled, much as the observational poetry of Frank O’Hara would be impossible to conceive without the bustling streets of New York City. Paterson is married to Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), a kooky artist who almost never leaves their small house, instead constructing black and white art out of cupcakes, curtains, guitars and other everyday material objects.
The relationship between Frank O’Hara and his job as a ticket taker at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s is replicated in Jarmusch’s present-day film about this bus driving poet. O’Hara writes: “It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs. First, down the sidewalk / where laborers feed their dirty / glistening torsos sandwiches / and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets on… Everything suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of a Thursday…. A glass of papaya juice and back to work. My heart is in my pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”
Paterson suddenly honks as well, but at errant drivers jeopardizing the schedule on his route. However, like O’Hara, his heart is in his lunch pail: he keeps a postcard of Dante Alighieri. Like O’Hara, walking the city at lunch time to observe the materials for his poems, Jarmusch’s main character is equally committed to words: he writes on his bus, in his basement, and on a park bench overlooking a beautiful bridge in front of a waterfall.
Laura encourages Paterson to go Xerox the poems in his secret notebook, so that he may send them off in consideration for publication. However, despite his promises, he never builds up the courage to do so. Over the weekend, he neglects to put his book away; overnight, Laura’s dog, Marvin tears the pages to shreds. When Laura attempts to console Paterson, he shrugs, “It’s OK. They’re just words.” For a film devoted so carefully to the verbal, in competition with the normally overpowering visual nature of cinema, his line stabs at the heart. We are certain that this represents Paterson giving up.
However, like the town he is named after, he abides. In a beautiful deus ex machina ending, Paterson sits on his favorite bench overlooking the waterfall. His book has been destroyed, and its visual absence is glaring. He is now apparently just a bus driver sitting out in nature on his day off. And then, everything suddenly honks: a Japanese man sits down next to him, having arrived in New Jersey on a pilgrimage to the location from which William Carlos Williams published his epic poem about American life, Paterson in 1946. The man asks Paterson if he is a poet. He replies, “No. I’m a bus driver.” Without a beat’s hesitation, the man replies, “That is very poetic. It could be a poem by William Carlos Williams,” which of course, it is, in the guise of Jarmusch’s film.
The two men sit on the park bench, discussing the poetry of Frank O’Hara. Before he leaves, the man presents Paterson with a present, an empty book in which to write new poems. He explains, “Sometimes the empty page presents more possibilities.” As the man walks away, Jarmusch delivers the film’s elegant message: while we despair that Paterson the bus driver must be devastated that he has lost his poems, he begins writing again, all along never having been a frustrated bus driver who writes poetry, but a poet whose operating of a city bus drives his artistry.
Williams was first and foremost a doctor in the town of Paterson, NJ who used his trained medical diagnostic skills to become the greatest Imagist poet in American literary history. Similarly, O’Hara took his lunches away from the Museum of Modern Art to experience the life of New York City. Jarmusch finishes his film with a poetic allegory. The poem that Paterson writes in his pristine notebook is called, “The Line:” There’s an old song my grandfather used to sing, that has the question, ‘Or would you rather be a fish’? In the same song is the same question but with a mule and a pig. But the one I hear sometimes in my head is the fish one. Just that one line. Would you rather be a fish? As if the rest of the song didn’t have to be there.” Jarmusch’s elegant film teaches us that we are neither fish nor fowl, neither bus drivers nor poets, but human beings whose artistic talents result from the material world around us, if only we know how to see it.
Metz, Walter. “A Step Away from the Cinema: Hollywood and the Poetry of Frank O’Hara.” Marlisa Santos (Ed.) Verse, Voice, and Vision: Poetry and the Cinema. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2013. 153-163.