Paterson, the new movie by the celebrated indie filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, has been receiving a lot of buzz and praise ever since it debuted this summer at the Cannes Film Festival, “where it was feted as the best film the 63-year-old Jarmusch had made.”
I haven’t seen the movie yet (it’s slated for release on December 28), but can’t wait to. Paterson is the rare critically-acclaimed movie that is both about and inspired by poetry. Building on William Carlos Williams’ modernist epic Paterson — which takes as its subject the unlikely locale of Paterson, New Jersey — Jarmusch’s film tells the story of a week in the life of a bus driver and poet, played by Adam Driver, who lives in the city and is himself named Paterson. The main character spends his days driving a bus around town and scribbling poems about daily life in his notebook. When asked what drew him to Paterson, Jarmusch explains that “William Carlos Williams was a doctor there, Allen Ginsberg grew up there and there are still poets there. So that seems very odd to me. And interesting.”
Jarmusch fans will probably not be surprised that the director has made a movie so intently focused on a poet, because he has always been effusive in talking about his love for poetry. As Stephanie Zacharek notes in Time, “Jarmusch has drawn on that love, and more, to make a picture that shows how art—maybe even especially art made in the margins—can fill up everyday life.” (For more on this movie, poetry, and its connection to Williams, especially, see Virginia Heffernan’s recent piece at the Poetry Foundation, which rightly notes that that Paterson, NJ, is “an unassuming industrial town whose name means poetry to just about 250 living people”).
But Paterson is not only unusual for being a film about poetry – it is an even rarer (perhaps unheard of) specimen: a movie that grows out of, and contributes to, the lineage of New York School poetry in particular. While a student at Columbia, Jarmusch studied poetry with poets of the New York School, Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro, and fell deeply under the spell of their aesthetic. He also grew close with Ron Padgett, who actually wrote the poems we see the protagonist writing in Paterson. Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems makes an appearance in the movie as well and in recent interviews, Jarmusch has explained that one goal of the movie was to channel some elements of the New York School aesthetic. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more New York School-saturated movie coming soon to a theater near you.
It’s been striking to see Jarmusch making the rounds talking about Koch, O’Hara, Padgett, and the New York School of poets in the mainstream media. For example the Guardian notes that Jarmusch “calls the New York School poets his ‘aesthetic godfathers’ and is full of praise for Frank O’Hara’s Personism manifesto. ‘They said: ‘Make a poem to one other person, don’t make a poem to the world. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Allow humour,’ he explains. ‘Their poems are very funny and have so much exuberance. Why shouldn’t poetry be that way?’”
In a conversation in Interview, Jarmusch elaborates further on his profound connection to the poetry of the New York School and how it fueled his new movie:
JARMUSCH: The New York School poets are my godfathers creatively, and I studied with Kenneth Koch and David Shapiro when I was younger. Ron Padgett, along with David Shapiro, in 1975, they put together an anthology of New York Poets, a book that became the kind of bible for what is now the New York School. Frank O’Hara wrote a manifesto called Personism about how, “Just write a poem as if you’re writing a note to one other person.” In our film, Paterson reads a beautiful small poem by William Carlos Williams [This is Just to Say] that is exactly that. It’s just a note left on the table, “I ate the plums you were saving for breakfast,” you know? So, Ron Padgett, he partly introduced me, before I ever knew him, to the New York School. Because of that anthology, he has always been one of my favorite poets of the New York School. Really the big guns are Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch and James Schuyler, but Ron Padgett and David Shapiro are also very important to me. I got to know Ron for the past 15 years or so as well, but I knew his work before I ever met him. When I first met him, I used to annoy him by quoting his poems to him all the time. [chuckles] He put up with it, and we’re friends, but I was so honored that he would contribute some poems to the film: both poems that existed, and write new ones as well. I was so thrilled. From the very start writing the script, my idea was to go to Ron Padgett.
KELSEY: Who wrote the poem that the young girl reads to Paterson?
JARMUSCH: Oh, I wrote that one, and I asked Ron to write a better one and he said, “No, I like this one. I’m not going to do it. You have to use this one.” So, yes, I wrote that one, but I wrote it to be written by a young person. Kenneth Koch, man, he taught children to write the most incredible poems. There’s a book called, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? He taught kids in public schools in New York City to write poems without rhymes or any of that, just try to write these little poems about these things, these little details, and, man, they wrote some beautiful poetry.
Jarmusch wishes for his work to be understood as a “cinematic equivalent” of New York School poetry:
I always wish that I could someday be considered, if there was a cinematic equivalent of the New York school. And the New York School is defined a lot by a little manifesto that Frank O’Hara wrote. He was also the curator of the Museum of Modern Art, so he had a real job and wrote poems on his lunch break, similar to Paterson. And he had a manifesto called Personism, in which he said, “Write a poem to one other person. Don’t write it to the world. Write it as if you’re writing a letter or a note.” William Carlos Williams’ great poem that is read in the film, This Is Just to Say, which is literally one note to one other person. The New York school of poets are also funny — they’re celebratory. Frank O’Hara used a lot of explanation marks. One poem started with, “New York, how beautiful you are today. Like Ginger Rogers in Swing Time!” They are my guides in many ways.
The movie’s star, the young actor Adam Driver, has also been doing the rounds, explaining that preparing for the role entailed a crash course in poetry, particularly the work of O’Hara, Padgett, and the New York School. “I had an elementary knowledge of poetry,” Driver recently said. “I knew of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and E.E. Cummings. I didn’t know about Ron Padgett’s poems that appear in Paterson, and the New York School. Jim also turned me on to Frank O’Hara.”
As the Hollywood Reporter notes,
To fit the part, Driver took a course in Queens to learn how to drive a bus and studied the work of one of Jarmusch’s other favorite poets, Ron Padgett, who composed Paterson’s three poems in the film. “Jim told me that he went to Adam and said, ‘Here are the poems that are going to be used in the film,'” Padgett told THR at the Dec. 15 screening, where Driver was on hand to introduce the film with a humble wave and nod. “And Adam said, ‘Oh, yeah, I know.’ Adam had brought along my 800-page volume of Collective Poems and said, ‘I’ve already read all the guy’s other work.’ Adam is a very quick study and it was flattering to me, but I realized he has a really terrific work ethic.” He added, “I think it’d be easier to learn to drive a bus than to read all my poems!”
In this conversation with the actor Michael Shannon, Driver discusses his experience reciting poetry in the movie and touches on Ron Padgett, Kenneth Koch, and the New York School (from 5:30 to 7:30)
And in this press conference at Cannes, Jarmusch explains that Paterson shares William Carlos Williams’s interest in a “poetry of small details and things in daily life.” Also, he mentions that the rapper and actor Method Man appears in the film and quotes Williams’s famous dictum “no ideas but in things” (which, Jarmusch explains, Method Man came up with on his own because he’d been reading Williams himself!).
Finally, here is a trailer for the movie:
If nothing else, the release of Jarmusch’s Paterson is notable because it has prompted what will likely be the only time you will ever see a quote from Frank O’Hara’s long experimental masterpiece “In Memory of My Feelings” in a venue like the Hollywood Reporter:
When introducing Paterson at the screening, Jarmusch used the first two lines of the Frank O’Hara poem “In Memory of My Feelings” to describe Driver’s performance. “My quietness has a man in it, he is transparent; and he carries me quietly, like a gondola, through the streets,” he quoted.
“Somehow it really struck me,” he added of the words. “Maybe you’ll get it after you see my movie.”
Jarmusch recently said “I would be so deeply honoured if one day someone said I was the cinematic extension of the New York School.” It may just be me, on this humble blog, but I’m happy to be the first to say it: Jim Jarmusch is the cinematic extension of the New York School.
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