December 28, 2016

A Poet Named Paterson from Paterson

Jim Jarmusch’s new film is Paterson. which opened this week in the U.S. but received good reviews last May at the Cannes film festival.

Director Jarmusch came to New York in the 1970s and wanted to be a poet. He was diverted by music and filmmaking, but poetry has not left him. In his film Only Lovers Left Alive, one character is Christopher Marlowe, and in Dead Man one is William Blake.
"Well, when I became a teenager I started reading French symbolist poets — translated, of course. And I discovered Baudelaire — and, consequently, Rimbaud — and I started looking at American poets; Walt Whitman first. And then, when I escaped Akron, Ohio, where I was born, and eventually ended up in New York. I got to study in the New York school of poets and I got to study with Kenneth Koch, a great poet of the New York school and David Shapiro. Ron Padgett, who wrote the poems for our film and David Shapiro, who was my teacher, they both edited a book called the Anthology of New York Poets in 1970. I didn’t discover it until the mid-1970s, but it was kind of a bible for me. "

But in his newest film, we follow a guy called Paterson was born and still lives in Paterson, New Jersey. He drives the #23 bus which has his name on its side.

Among other things, Paterson, New Jersey is a poetry city. This "Silk City" was known for that elegant fabric during the latter half of the 19th century. It was and still is an immigrant city. It has a large Hispanic population and many immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world. (It has the second-largest Muslim population in the United States.)

The Great Falls
You may know that the Lou Costello half of the comedy team Abbott and Costello grew up there. You may know the Great Falls of the Passaic River, now a National Park.

Paterson is also the subject of William Carlos Williams' epic poem Paterson. The city shows up in the poetry of another native son, Allen Ginsberg.

In Allen's friend's novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac's protagonist Sal Paradise lives with his aunt in Paterson. (Kerouac's own hometown was another mill town with a waterfall, Lowell, Massachusetts. New Jersey's Junot Diaz uses Paterson. It is the setting of John Updike's novels In the Beauty of the Lilies and is renamed "New Prospect" in his novel The Terrorist.

I worked at Passaic County Community College in Paterson for five years and for me the city is a poetry place. Besides Williams and Ginsberg, it breathes poetry today through the work of poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan on the page and in everyday life.

Maria sings of her hometown in all of her twenty-one books of poetry. She also helps make Paterson  the beating heart of poetry for the state as the Founder and Executive Director of the nationally known Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. She is the editor of the Paterson Literary Review which comes from the Center and sponsors the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prizes.

Ginsberg, Gillan and Williams

The Paterson in the new film, played by Adam Driver, seems to take William Carlos Williams' poem and its aesthetic of finding beauty in the everyday to heart. He awakens and talks to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), drives his NJ Transit bus, walks his dog and writes his poems. The work of contemporary poet Ron Padgett inspires and is the prose poetry of the character Paterson.

LOVE POEM by Ron Padgett

We have plenty of matches in our house. We keep them on hand always. Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip, though we used to prefer Diamond brand. That was before 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, its one and a half inch soft pine stem capped by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious and stubbornly ready to burst into flame, lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love, for the first time, and it was never really the same after that. All this will we give you.'' That is what you gave me, I become the cigarette and you the match, or I the match and you the cigarette, blazing with kisses that smoulder toward heaven.

This poetry finds meaning and beauty from simplicity and routine. The film too is described as  subdued and undramatic. It may be an antidote to the superhero, violent, explosions of most films today. It may be just too simple and quiet for today's audience.

As we follow Paterson for a week, small changes in that routine seem large. Paterson's wife is also an artist but her creativity has no pattern. One day she is learning to play an instrument, or redecorating the house, designing clothing, or baking cupcakes. She builds. He strips things down to essentials.

Paterson seems quiet and gentle, but this veteran in one scene disarms an armed man. In a quiet world, small sounds seems louder.

Even in the film's trailer and clips, I see Paterson's old warehouses and factories that I know pretty well. This was a birthplace city of American industry set in a place chosen by founding father Alexander Hamilton to harness the power of the Great Falls. We see unpublished but prolific poet Paterson at the Falls too, as Ginsberg, Williams, Gillan and many other poets have done.

He is not much of a talker, but he is a listener, and that is important work for a poet.

December 22, 2016

A Poetic Fruit Bowl

I didn't realize until I was making some recent changes to the Poets Online archive of writing prompts and poems that we have gone to the fruit bowl three times since 1998. In those 18 years, we have posted over 200 prompts and and almost 2000 poems.

I try not to repeat prompts, but fruit has appeared in three prompts. So, if you're in the mood for some writing that came from fruit or in the mood to bite into some fruitful poems, try these:

December 16, 2016

Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, Literature and the Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg - Photo by Elsa Dorfman

Bob Dylan didn't attend the ceremony to pick up his Nobel Prize for Literature. He sent Patti Smith who sang his song "‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall." 

And he sent an acceptance letter. If it doesn't bother you that he compares himself to William Shakespeare, then you might like his response. Lots of people were excited by him winning the award, but others were disappointed. Is he a poet or singer? Are they poems or songs?

Here's an excerpt of his explanation.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn't have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I'm sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: "Who're the right actors for these roles?" "How should this be staged?" "Do I really want to set this in Denmark?" His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. "Is the financing in place?" "Are there enough good seats for my patrons?" "Where am I going to get a human skull?" I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare's mind was the question "Is this literature?" 
...But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life's mundane matters. "Who are the best musicians for these songs?" "Am I recording in the right studio?" "Is this song in the right key?" Some things never change, even in 400 years. 
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, "Are my songs literature?" 
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

Read the entire speech at

December 6, 2016

Prompt: Broken Things

"Action Man" by Jeremy Richardson via Flickr

Things break. Usually, we try to fix them, or find someone else who can fix them for us.

Today, we often hear that things are more disposable. "Planned obsolescence" is a phrase that goes back to the 1930s. It describes a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing. This is achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of non-durable materials.

In the more than 70 years since the concept was introduced, that idea has moved from automobiles, television sets, phones and other hard goods to much softer ones. People discuss how things like relationships and marriage have become disposable.

In Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "The God Of Broken Things," he tells us of a very human "god" who can fix just about anything you bring into his junk shop.

He's in a lopsided heaven at Maggie's
Junk Shop. Objects of wood, iron, ivory,
Of veneer, lead, stone, glass, flimsy
Cardboard, of tin, brass, bronze . . .

He could go on forever fixing
Cracks, fissures, dents, fractures,
Rasping & gluing together what is
Unheard-of with what can never be

All of these very real things that range from "Objets d'art to "bric-a-brac" can be mended in some way. The poet says that they are "Broken or hurt beneath the architecture / Of planned obsolescence."

In Komunyakaa's collection Talking Dirty to the Gods, he gives us 132 poems of 16 lines (four quatrains) with most of the lines being of four stresses. Like sonnets, there is a formalism to the poems and they include many allusions to mythology and religion. Besides “The God of Broken Things,” there is a “The God of Variables” and “The Goddess of Quotas.”

Some poets find beauty in broken things.  In her poem "Broken Things,"  Sara Teasdale writes:
    Broken things are loveliest,
            Broken clouds when dusk is red,
    Broken waves where a rainbow rides,
            Broken words left half unsaid.

    Broken things, broken things—
            How quietly they comfort me,
    Riven cliffs, where I can watch
            The broken beauty of the sea.  

In Alice Walker's poem "I Will Keep Broken Things," she wants to save everything, broken or not.

But in his "Ode To Broken Things," Pablo Neruda suggests letting all the broken things go.
Let's put all our treasures together
-- the clocks, plates, cups cracked by the cold --
into a sack and carry them
to the sea
and let our possessions sink
into one alarming breaker
that sounds like a river.
May whatever breaks
be reconstructed by the sea
with the long labor of its tides.
So many useless things
which nobody broke
but which got broken anyway

None of these poets talk about broken hearts, broken relationships, broken homes, broken promises or broken lives, but we know that many things break and are much harder to repair than all those objects.

This month,we are writing poems about broken things and about our attempts to repair them. From Neruda, we will use his poem as as a thematic model, and from Yusef Komunyakaa we will borrow a short, controlled form for our poems: 16 lines in four quatrains. You may also want to meter the stresses, words or syllables to maintain line lengths - in his poem he uses mostly four stresses per line.

Submission Deadline: January 2, 2017