Jim Jarmusch as “the Cinematic Extension of the New York School”

Jim Jarmusch, Ron Padgett, and Adam Driver

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.





Posted in Film, Frank O'Hara, Jim Jarmusch, Kenneth Koch, Ron Padgett | 1 Comment

James Schuyler’s “December”: “a calm secret exultation of the spirit”

“Each December! I always think I hate ‘the over-commercialized event,'” James Schuyler writes in his poem “December,” one of my favorite poems about this time of year.  Despite his reluctance, the season somehow always manages to win him over: “and then bells ring, or tiny light bulbs wink above the entrance / to Bonwit Teller or Katherine going on five wants to look at all / the empty sample gift-wrapped boxes up Fifth Avenue in swank shops / and how can I help falling in love?”

Schuyler’s poem is also one of the best “Christmas in New York” poems that I can think of, as it captures so vividly the distinctive feeling of a wintry December dusk in the city.

Here is “December” by James Schuyler, which appeared in his first book, Freely Espousing (1969).  You can also hear Schuyler read the poem himself in this audio recording at PennSound.

May you all enjoy that “calm secret exultation of the spirit that tastes like Sealtest eggnog” too — happy holidays!

Posted in James Schuyler, Poems, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Joseph Cornell ‘s Birthday — Frank O’Hara’s “Joseph Cornell”

The American artist Joseph Cornell, famous for his haunting, surrealist box constructions and collages, was born on this day in 1903.  Cornell was of course one of the most beloved and influential artists in the New York School of poets’ pantheon — an object of veneration, the subject of critical essays, and inspiration for poems.

Here is Frank O’Hara’s poem “Joseph Cornell” (1955).  On the manuscript, O’Hara wrote beneath the poem “print like boxes”:

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Joseph Cornell, “Untitled (Grand Hotel Des Iles D’Oro)” (1952)

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Joseph Cornell, “Untitled (The Hotel Eden)” (1945)

Posted in Frank O'Hara, Joseph Cornell, Poems, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

For Ted Berrigan’s Birthday: “44th Birthday Evening, at Harris’s”

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Ted Berrigan would’ve turned 82 today. Here is one of a number of poems he wrote about, and on, his birthday, November 15:

44th Birthday Evening, at Harris’s
Nine stories high Second Avenue
On the roof there’s a party
All the friends are there watching
By the light of the moon the blazing sun
Go down over the side of the planet
To light up the underside of Earth
There are long bent telescopes for the friends
To watch this through. The friends are all in shadow.
I can see them from my bed inside my head.
44 years I’ve loved these dreams today.
17 years since I wrote for the first time a poem
On my birthday, why did I wait so long?
                                                                         my land a good land
its highways go to many good places where
many good people were found; a home land, whose song comes up
from the throat of a hummingbird & it ends
where the sun goes to across the skies of blue.
I live there with you.
Posted in Poems, Ted Berrigan, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), Kenneth Koch, and the Island of Hydra


Very sad news broke last night that the legendary songwriter, singer, and writer Leonard Cohen had passed away at 82.  Cohen began his career as a daring young Canadian poet and novelist, before switching to writing and performing music in the 1960s.  Not surprisingly, he is considered one of the most literary figures in popular music history.

It may be surprising, however, to hear that Cohen had a close tie to the New York School of poets, but he did, thanks to his friendship with Kenneth Koch.  Cohen and Koch fortuitously crossed paths on the Greek island of Hydra in the early 1960s, when it was a bohemian enclave of ex-pat writers and artists, and the two became good friends. At the time, Cohen was a poet and not yet a rock star, and Koch watched his later rise to fame with some surprise and bemusement.

When I worked as a teaching/research assistant for Koch in the 1990s, I remember him telling me a number of times that in the later 1960s Cohen tried to convince him to follow in his footsteps, making the move from poetry to music.  “Look at what Bob Dylan’s doing!” Cohen would tell him.  “And now I did it! And you can too!”  Telling this story, Koch would then laugh and joke that maybe he should have tried that after all and maybe his career would have turned out quite differently…

Jordan Davis recently unearthed an unpublished interview he did with Koch where the poet talked about his friendship with Cohen and tells a funny story about the time Cohen tried to get him to try his hand as a rock musician too:

I met Leonard Cohen on the island of Hydra in Greece where Janice and Katherine age five and I had gone for a summer vacation. And we became very good friends. We traveled also to Turkey together, to Istanbul. I liked Leonard a lot and so did Janice. We saw each other then a few times after that, it was nice and intense, but never more than a day. After some years, we were already living on West 4th Street, Katherine must have been ten by then. I ran into him on a bus. “Leonard!” I asked him what he was doing and he said, “Don’t you know? I’m a singer.” He had been a poet and a novelist. I got him to tell me all about it. I invited him over to our place and he told me I should become a singer too. I should sing all my poems. It was wonderful because you met lots of women and made a lot of money and you got to travel around and it was very satisfying to sing your poems. I said, “That’s great, Leonard,” and of course I was interested. I said, “Leonard, I can’t sing.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I can’t carry a tune.” He said, “That’s good, that means no one else will be able to sing your stuff.” And I said, “Well okay, but also I don’t play an instrument.” He said, “You can probably learn — let’s try.There wasn’t anything that made noise except a vacuum cleaner. I plugged in the vacuum cleaner and I thought I’d be more in the mood to sing if I stood up on a chair. He said, “Sing one of your poems.” I said, “There’s no music to any of my poems.” He said, “That’s okay.” I sang, with intermittent noise from the vacuum cleaner, “You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse” in a hillbilly voice.

Leonard interrupted me after a few bars I think they’re called — “You’re not serious.” Well there I was standing up on a chair and playing a vacuum cleaner. I stopped playing the vacuum cleaner and tried to be serious. He said, “I don’t believe you. Who are you singing to.” “Leonard, I’m singing to you, there’s no one else here.” “No — who in the audience. Who do you want to go to bed with after the show? Who are you addressing? Who do you want to like you?” “Twenty-two year old women.” “No. Everybody wants 22-year-old women. Sing to somebody else. You know who I sing to? 14-year-olds and 40-year olds.” I’m not sure those are the exact numbers — something like 14 and 40. I said, “Okay, I’ll try to sing to 14 yr olds.” But trying to sing my poems? It didn’t work too well. I said I’d try. At my age how can I get started? I can’t carry a tune I don’t play an instrument and I’ve never sung before. I was already 40 at least by then. “There’s one way you can help me.” And he said, “Anything, what is it.” “Are you going to have tributes on your sleeve, put me on the record jacket. Say, ‘Even the legendary Kenny has come out of retirement to praise Leonard Cohen.’” I figured that people who respond to this kind of thing are not exactly scholarly. He promised he would put this on the record cover. Months went by. I never heard from Leonard. I did receive from him this big rectangle, his record. On the cover was this girl (I don’t know if she was 14 or 40) rising from flames, somewhere in between, and on the back was Leonard, his lyrics, and no tributes. And no Kenny, and that was the end of another career, another attempt to become rich.

Koch’s daughter Katherine — an artist and writer who has begun publishing pieces of a memoir-in-progress about her experiences growing up around the poets and artists of the New York School — recently published a lovely essay about her memories of “Hydra, in 1960.”  In it, she recalls being a wide-eyed five year old, inspired by her father to have “dreamy ideas about what a poet’s or an artist’s life could look like: living in some sort of inspired state of mind, in a beautiful place which would spread out in front of you when you walked outside your studio.”  And Hydra seemed like the ideal place to do it.  She writes:

OK, this is it! I thought, I’m going to live here forever, painting during the day and grilling lamb for my friends in my courtyard in the evening. We’re going to laugh a lot, wear sandals, live in white houses above the harbor and listen to Leonard play songs on his guitar.

Leonard Cohen, a young Canadian novelist and poet, sometimes played guitar and sang. He had been living on Hydra since the spring, and was in love with Marianne Ihlen, whom he’d met there just a couple of months before we met them. Marianne was beautiful, I remember, and later on I associated her angular, sweet blondness with Mary Travers of the singing group Peter, Paul & Mary. I thought Leonard was wonderful, good-looking, looking a little like my father. He had an atmosphere about him, courtly and funny, sharing his good humor with me. We gave each other nicknames we never forgot: Boodie Leonard and Boodie Katherine.

Kenneth Koch, too, wrote about this idyllic time in his life in various places, such as his poem “The Departure from Hydra,” the short story “Living in the Sun,” and the moving elegiac poem “With Janice,” which mentions Leonard Cohen as well:

So Leonard invites us
to come and to see, where the white water bucket is a dashboard
Of this place to that.  You will want to go swimming, and you will want to meet
These snobbish absurd Americans who inhabit
The gesso incalcations on the cliff.

For decades, Leonard Cohen has been inviting us too to come and see, through the endless stream of his indelible songs and and moving words.  He will be sorely missed.

Posted in Kenneth Koch, Leonard Cohen, Music, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Try to see the world through Frank O’Hara’s eyes

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“Frank O’Hara: In the Heart of Noise” — London, Nov. 9

If you’re in or near London next week, you’ll want to check out this event devoted to Frank O’Hara, featuring poet, critic, and New York Schoolologist extraordinaire Mark Ford and the Aurora Orchestra.  It will be on November 9th, at Kings Place in London.  Here are the details:

“Poet in the City, in collaboration with Aurora Orchestra, present a special evening of poetry, music and art in celebration of Frank O’Hara, 50 years since his death.

From curating with Jackson Pollock and de Kooning to creating work inspired by John Cage and Billie Holiday, O’Hara was at the restless heart of the 1960s creative explosion and the ‘New York School’; legions of devoted followers have ensued since his death at 40. Featuring poet and critic Mark Ford, players from Aurora Orchestra and the acclaimed soprano Nina Bennet, join us to explore the great legacy of this ceaseless soul.”

The program looks great, too:

Billie Holiday/Mal Waldron Left Alone
Billie Holiday/Herbie Nichols The Lady Sings the Blues
Bill Carey/Carl Fischer You’ve Changed
Rachmaninov Prelude in E flat, Op. 23, No. 6
Ned Rorem Poulenc
Poulenc Sonata for flute and piano
Ravel La Valse
John Cage The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
Feldman Piano Piece 1952

For more information see here and here.

Posted in Event, Frank O'Hara, John Cage, Mark Ford, Morton Feldman, Music, Ned Rorem, Uncategorized | Leave a comment