No Ideas But in Non-Digital Things

Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson tackles poetry, New Jersey, and the Internet.

A smartphone is a leash. This deadpan conviction of a bus driver-poet called Paterson (Adam Driver) sharpens Paterson, a new film by Jim Jarmusch that chronicles a week of stifled epiphanies in Paterson’s life. In its quietude and devotion to the modern lyric, the movie suddenly seems almost a revenge piece—a flat rejection of digital culture and the imperative to make placeless films, light on dialogue, to play across the polyglot Internet. Jarmusch’s film instead is narrowly circumscribed in time, place, and idiom, and emerges as an anti-postmodern poem about American poetry. 

It’s supremely groovy ars poetica, then, involving two old souls, Paterson and his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), in an unassuming industrial town whose name means poetry to just about 250 living people. 

And that’s the beauty of it; it’s vitally here. Paterson sets itself hard in Paterson, New Jersey, the valley under the mighty Great Falls of the Passaic River that inspired to verse the likes of Allen Ginsberg and the pediatrician-poet William Carlos Williams, whose epic about the city is an animating spirit of the film.

Jarmusch didn’t want to make a film about poetry without a poet on hand, and fortunately he knew a good one: Ron Padgett. “Jim told me he was thinking of doing a movie that would involve poetry and New Jersey,” Padgett told me, and Jarmusch asked Padgett to be his “poetry adviser.”

Who could refuse? “I just act important, spout off opinions, and go on my merry way,” Padgett thought. But that’s not how it worked out. Jarmusch asked, nonchalantly, to use some of Padgett’s existing poems for the film’s central character—Padgett agreed—and then wondered if his pal might write something new for the film. Padgett didn’t want to write on command, but somehow he couldn’t resist the call: he composed the poems “The Run” and “The Line.” This recent work, which appears in the movie alongside four of Padgett’s oldies, is stunning—or rather, as Padgett puts, it is “not embarrassing.” 

In the film are no ideas but in things. Those things, lovingly longed for by Jarmusch’s nostalgic if digital camera, include 20th-century totems such as matchbooks, lunchboxes, and dog leashes. Smartphones here are presumably things too—but things sorely short on ideas. Or maybe they are things so closely allied with ideas that they’ve lost their mineral integrity.

The movie is also about a devilish English bulldog named Marvin. In his rounds, Paterson leashes, walks, and also despises Marvin, who represents boisterous competition for the affections of his beautiful wife. But Paterson is a steadfast man of his place, who does his duty by his wife, his bus, and even his rival. 

The Guardian cited the runic film for its “almost miraculous innocence,” but I suspect the film knows, and even holds in non-innocent contempt, more than it’s telling. We are given to understand that out of the frame humans as dogs are leashed by their phones, slaves to an Internet overlord. Only here, in a shire unmolested by digitization, are they free. This whole film, in fact, may be as the sassafras leaves are to Williams in “Waiting”—the pure joy against which ordinary life seems to crush the spirit.

Ron Padgett’s poetry in Paterson—together with Eileen Myles’s work for Transparent—sets a high-water mark for the representation of poetry in TV and film. (Amazon Studios, which created Transparent, is also a producer of Paterson; it’s worth recognizing Amazon’s stealth commitment to poetry.) What’s more, Padgett’s simple lyrics are powerful tonic in an age of poltergeist Twitter dialect and sweetie-pie Instagram filters. Consider “Love Poem,” which is anchored around the line “We have plenty of matches in our house.” Padgett says the idea for that came in hearing himself say those words, and thinking “What? I’m half-moron to say that! Well, I'll just write this poem as though I'm a moron. And it evolved into a sincere and passionate love poem.” 

Just as modernist no longer designates the contemporary, colloquial language may no longer be the actual demotic. (For that, see texts and Twitter.) But colloquial is what Padgett’s work here is, sturdy and wholesome, and then, in a sly flash, magnificent. Padgett’s broader opus has less Williams to it than it does, well, Padgett. Still, he told me, when he discovered Williams in high school in the 1950s, “I was very attracted to the fact that he could write in such simple, direct, immediate language—without rhyme, without metaphor—and I still thought it was poetry.”

In 1964, Padgett even found himself in Paterson, when he and a few friends—including the poets Joseph Ceravolo and Ted and Sandy Berrigan—realized there would be a wait for dinner at Ceravolo’s Bloomfield house and took off on a joyride to see the Falls and look for Williams’s house in Rutherford. They spied it and sent Sandy, who was fearless, to scout it out. Williams had been dead a year or so then. 

At the house, they met Williams’s widow, Flossie, who gave the eager gang a tour of everything, pointing out a secretary desk lined with shelves that held some of the great man’s favorite books. On the way out, Padgett told me, “I looked down the driveway in the back of the house. And I saw a red wheelbarrow. Huh? Really? It was quite thrilling.”

The poem Padgett wrote about the visit remains unpublished—it “didn’t get through the turnstile,” as he put it—but at my insistence, he dug it up from cold storage. (It’s a delight, but by order of the poet, it’s for my eyes only.)

“Love Poem,” which unspools across the screen as Paterson, in the bus-driver’s seat, scribbles in his notebook, is perhaps the most Williamsian poem by Padgett in the movie. One passage is gloriously thingy:

... we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They are excellently packaged, sturdy
little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels
with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone,
as if to say even louder to the world,
“Here is the most beautiful match in the world...

Dying things, such as flames and the matches they consume, and the body of a young wife, are the most beautiful things in Jarmusch’s Paterson sanctuary. But, being poor, real things, made of ash and clay, they don’t ascend to the Cloud. This is the surprise turn of the film; Paterson’s unleashedness to the Internet also leaves him with no cellphone in a bus emergency. And, when the dog Marvin shreds his notebook, he has no other copies of his poems, no duplicates, much less Google Docs. Suddenly, even this humble, Wi-Fi-non-enabled bus driver longs for immortality, for proper ambition, for the poet’s eternal life. (Marvin: Yeah, well, he’s not getting it.)

Paterson goes to sit solemnly by the roaring Great Falls. Maybe in his head are his—that is, Ron Padgett’s—ace verses about jealous love or human bodies in space, as in “The Run”: 

I go through
trillions of molecules
that move aside
to make way for me
while on both sides
trillions more
stay where they are.

Or maybe, as happens to so many of us who have lost data to busted silicon or the family dog, Paterson can’t remember a damned thing. But paper is cheap, and he’s given some by a Japanese pilgrim to Williams’s mecca. As writers discover, the next pass, once the first is a ghost, is sometimes better. “Say it, no ideas but in things—“ Williams wrote: 

nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!

Paterson still has his pen. In view of those loud waters, that kid is truly unleashed and starts to write again.



Originally Published: December 20th, 2016

Virginia Heffernan, a journalist and cultural critic, is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.