On Paterson and Poems

As an English teacher, I am about to commit heresy:

I don’t really care for poetry.

“BLASPHEMY!” you shout – and I understand if you react that way. How could I, a high school English teacher, a man who adores Dead Poets Society, not care for poetry? I’m honestly not really sure. Maybe it was the teachers I had growing up or being exposed to the same old boring poems that I’m forced to give my students now, or the stuffy rules and conventions (I still can’t stand iambic pentameter). Whatever it was, I have never really connected to it.

Now, this doesn’t mean I dislike ALL poetry. I find Blackout Poetry to be a very accessible and often artistically beautiful method of expression. There are poems by Poe, Whitman, Dylan Thomas, Shakespeare, and Frost that I love. There are many songwriters whom I would consider to be poets (now the debate about whether or not song lyrics can be considered literature is one that I won’t get into – I’m in the “if it’s affecting you it’s significant” camp) whose words reach the same heights as the classics, at least in my opinion. But, as a whole, I have largely viewed poetry as a pretentious, high-minded, and exclusive form of expression that was simply beyond me.

Until I saw a movie called Paterson.

Paterson is a 2016 film starring Adam Driver as a bus driver (hehe, driver driver) named Paterson in New Jersey who writes poetry in his spare time. The plot simply follows Paterson through a typical week… and that’s essentially it. There aren’t any real moments of high drama, there are no shocking revelations or secrets, and there are no really high stakes. Sure, interesting things happen, but compared to your average Marvel movie Paterson is stunningly mundane, even boring, which is seemingly the point. The movie simply follows him through the week at his job, at home with his girlfriend, and at the bar where he gets a drink every night. Throughout the week he composes various poems and by all accounts, Paterson seems to be living a very simple and content life. It’s a quiet and somewhat meandering movie, yet six years after seeing it I find myself thinking about it. Why?

A random video in the YouTube algorithm about Paterson popped up in my feed and on a whim, I decided to watch it – and was completely entranced by the deeper meaning behind it – a layer of meaning that I didn’t fully grasp when I watched the film six years ago.

Paterson is an example of how to find meaning and beauty in the mundane and ordinary elements of our daily lives and routines. One of the poems in the film goes into a deep meditation on a box of matches, giving them an almost living quality before suddenly shifting into a poem about love. Rob Padgett, who wrote the poems featured in the film, has been known for finding ways to take the simple and extract a deeper meaning out of it, and Paterson as a film accomplishes the same feat.

Paterson director Jim Jarmusch said that (and I’m paraphrasing here) poets and writers have a unique ability to really observe life and find deeper meanings and experiences within them – they continually look to “see” things on another level. This is something I honestly do not do very much because I often let the daily grind of life get in the way.

I have become aware lately that my default has often been to complain or to see the negative, and Paterson was a needed reminder of having a proper perspective in my daily life. Paterson’s life in the movie may seem crushingly mundane and Paterson himself may seem to be an example of a man who has given up all ambition and has quietly resigned himself to a life of meaningless drudgery, depending on your perspective. Jarmusch’s intention was the opposite – Paterson shows how one can find contentment and beauty anywhere if one chooses to be intentional and look for it. Paterson doesn’t come up with poems to escape his life, he comes up with poems as a celebration of expression within it. He quietly observes ordinary beauty around him and chooses to be content and grateful – he finds inspiration within the contentment. This reminded me of something Paul said in Philippians:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Philippians 4:8 ESV

This is something I have tried to do more and more lately – especially in these days of war, uncertainty, inflation, and strife. And it is often incredibly difficult – but it is also incredibly worthwhile. We are blessed beyond far more than we can comprehend. All of us can benefit from taking stock of what we have. As G.K Chesterton said, “The greatest of poems is an inventory.” How often do we truly choose to think about what we have been blessed with instead of what we are lacking?

Believe it or not, I have been inspired lately to dabble in poetry. I have been paying no attention to forms or rules or conventions (that stuff still makes my head spin), but it has been a rewarding way to write. Are they any good? Not at all. Not even remotely. Are they helping me to get into a more thoughtful and grateful mindset? Absolutely. It’s been beneficial to me to really try to think through, observe, and try to find the beauty and gratitude within the mundane – I have started to see God working within all of it and it has been a tremendous encouragement.

Maybe I’m finally starting to “get” this poetry thing.

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