It is difficult – to me at least – hearing the name Paterson, NJ without immediately thinking of poetry by William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg and the sense of place their art brings forward.
The name conjures images of small town America with redbrick low rises and run down factories somewhere in the vicinity of New York beyond Newark and Hackensack.
This is the place in which William Carlos Williams divided his time between his medical practice and writing poetry of international aclaim; where Louis and Naomi Ginsberg brought up their son Allen, who would later become a central figure of the Beat Generation and a prolific name associated with the counter cultures of the 1960s.
Paterson is also the name of Jim Jarmusch’s soft spoken 2016 film – a name it shares with both its central location and the main charater portrayed by Adam Driver.
A Sense of Place: Idea and Aim
Prerequisites: Basic film analysis methods and vocabulary; some knowledge of working with poetry.
Paterson provides an excellent jumping off point for a module on the theme “A Sense of Place” which teaches english methodology and point of view through a combination of film analysis, sociology, human geography and literary studies.
According to IMDB, Jim Jarmusch’s film is a romantic comedy-drama and “a quiet observation of the triumphs and defeats of daily life, along with the poetry evident in its smallest details.” The film tells the story of Paterson, a bus driver who lives a quiet life of routine while writing poetry, walking his dog and loving his artistically bent wife Laura.
The main character’s favorite poet is that other Paterson native William Carlos Williams. Far from working solely as a passing reference to Paterson’s poetic sensibility, Jarmusch has based the entire premise and narrative mode of the film on Williams poetic vision of “locality” and “contact”. The central concepts underpinning both Jarmusch’s film and Williams’s poetry are the notions “that there are no ideas but in things” and the thought that “we know nothing, pure / and simple, beyond / our own complexities.”
What is seemingly a simple romantic movie about an introverted busdriver turns into a celebration and exploration of rootedness, place, space, imagination, poetry and love.
Watching it we become increasingly aware of the complexity of simple things. Paterson, it turns out may simultaneously refer to: A town, a man, a film, an epic poem and a lyric poem. And Paterson, the man (played by Adam Driver), embodies all these things.
By linking this notion of simple complexity to theories of space and place taken from sociology and human geography, Paterson (the film) becomes the perfect vehicle for teaching students about the importance of applying a methodical point of view to their analyses.
Thus Paterson might actually answer the critical question: “Why are we doing this?”
Theories of Place and Home
People demonstrate their sense of place when they apply their moral and aesthetic discernment to sites and locations. (…) However, other than the all-important eye, the world is known through the senses of hearing, smell, taste, and touch. These senses, unlike the visual, require close contact and long association with the environment.Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (1979)
According to Chinese-American human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, a place is by definition imbued with meaning while space usually is not associated with anything of particular importance. When relating objects, people and meaning to an area we constitute a sense of place and possibly of rootedness. Thus Tuan’s idea of place may be linked with French philosopher Pierre Bordieu’s concept of habitus or Pico Iyers and Seré Prince Halverson’s notions of home and belonging.
In applying sense of place theories like Tuans, or the one shown in the model below, we gain a vantage point from which to analyse and understand the characters, environment, objects, relations and narrative threads in Paterson.
Before you move on, however, I think it would be a good idea to pause and watch this talk by David Houle on changing concepts of placeness from a TedX event in Sonoma County:
No Ideas but in Things
Perhaps somewhat naively, Williams Carlos Williams thought that poetry could give direct access to the world. He sees the poet as kind of documentarist who observes and brings people and places to life through painstaking attention to detail and imagination. Williams constructs his poem as a mosaic or collage that revolves around the vernacular spoken by the people of Paterson, NJ.
At the same time the Paterson Falls, which powered the town’s industry (and feature prominently in Jarmusch’s film), become a central image and source of energy for the poem.
The preface to and opening of the poem provides an insight into this idea of localism and imagination rooted in documentary facts. In the introduction to William Carlos Williams: Selected Poems (Penguin), Charles Tomlinson links Williams’s rooting in observations of the particular to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that “the roots of letters are in things”. Another similar concept from American literature is Walt Whitman’s delight in “mere fact-consciousness” found in the short poem “Beginning my studies” from Leaves of Grass.
Williams’s sensibility, however, is characteritically modernist in his insistence that there is no duality. “No ideas but in things” effectively dismisses the platonic worldview with its division between the world of ideas and phenomena.
As stated above, the opening of Paterson also provides the basic premise to Jim Jarmusch’s film and Williams’s view of the world is continually interwoven with the story of Paterson and Laura.
That Is All Very Well I hear You Say
But how do we teach it? Well, this might be one way to approach it:
|Lesson||Focus and Aim||Materials|
Concepts of Home and Rootedness
Students write short prose pieces on “Home”
|TEDTalks: David Houle, “The Concept of Place has Changed Forever” and|
Pico Iyer, “Where is Home?” (2014)
|#2||Habitus and Sense of Place Theory|
Students analyse each others writing focusing on adjectives, nouns and metaphors applied to their notion of “Home”. Then relate their writings to “Sense of Place Model”
|Teacher Talk on Pierre Bordieu (Habitus) and Yi-Fu Tuan (Space and Place)|
Sense of Place Model
|#3||“No Ideas but in Things”|
Starter: Cognitive Mapping – students draw a map of a well known place from memory. Share and discuss differences and similarities.
Localism and Documentary in Paterson (Book 1) by William Carlos Williams with emphasis on the poet’s sense of place
Intro to WCW
“Preface” and “Delineaments of the Giants” by William Carlos Williams
Students note the portrayal of Paterson
|Paterson by Jim Jarmusch (2016) available on Netflix and DVD|
|#5||Finishing the film|
Keywords: Paterson’s sense of place? Perceived similaries between poem and film?
|Paterson by Jim Jarmusch (2016) available on Netflix and DVD|
|#6||Film Analysis A: Focus on Location, Space and Place. Students work independently in 6 groups: Focus points (E.g.): Setting and enviroment, Paterson’s sense of place, Laura’s sense of place, the bar, the film’s portrayal of poetic place, the importance of William Carlos Williams, the significance of observed dialogue and chance meetings.||Intro Video Tutorial: Location, Space and Place in Geography|
|#7||Film Analysis B: All groups choose methods and create tasks for teaching a 20 minute sequence on their chosen subject.|
|#8||Teaching Paterson||Students set homework and tasks.|
|#8||The Poetry of Paterson||Poems from the film|
“Love Poem”; “Another One” and “Poem”
|#9||Conclusions and Perspectives: |
Paterson’s sense of place
Comparition with Allen Ginsberg poem
Meta-Cognition Exercise: Methodological points of view: What did I learn?
|Allen Ginsberg, “Paterson” (Lyric Poem)|
A: Divide students in to 6 groups with different focus points – e.g. some of the following:
- Setting and environment
- Paterson’s sense of place
- Laura’s sense of place
- The local bar
- The portrayal of poetic place
- The importance of William Carlos Williams
- The significance of observed dialogue and chance meetings
B: Groups are given 90 minutes to work independently with the film and their focus point
- Make an analysis of the film based on your focus point. Your analysis must include:
- Relevant analytical vocabulary and methods
- Visual quotations from the film (stills/screenshots)
- Use of theoretical concepts about “sense of place”
C: Groups are given 90 minutes to plan a 20 minute teaching sequence based on their analyses
Create a lesson plan for teaching a 20 minute sequence on your chosen aspect of Paterson
Your lesson plan must include:
- The aim of your sequence (what should your students learn?)
- Tasks and assignments for the sequence
Send your finished lesson plans to your teacher.
D: Teaching Paterson
- Create 6 teaching stations. Each station is manned with 2 teachers (students take turn so everyone ultimately perform the role as teachers.
- Other students move between the different stations and take active part in the lessons. Each student should visit a minimum of 3 different lessons. Teacher participates along with everyone else.
Primary Materials for A Sense of Place
Below are exerpts from Book 1 of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, along with Allen Ginsberg’s poem with the same title and some of the poems attributed to the main character is Jarmusch’s film.
I also provide links a lecture by Yi-Fu Tuan and an article which introduces the main concepts in Tuans essay “Space and Place: A Humanist Perspective”.
Paterson; Book 1
“Rigor of beauty is the quest. But how will you find beauty
when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?”
To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling
up the sum, by defective means —
Sniffing the trees,
just another dog
among a lot of dogs. What
else is there? And to do?
The rest have run out —
after the rabbits.
Only the lame stands— on
three legs. Scratch front and back.
Deceive and eat. Dig
a musty bone.
For the beginning is assuredly
the end — since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities.
The Delineaments of the Giants
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring
animate a thousand automatons. Who because they
neither know their sources nor the sills of their
disappointments walk outside their bodies aimlessly
for the most part,
locked and forgot in their desires — unroused.
— Say it, no ideas but in things –
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!
From above, higher than the spires, higher
even than the office towers, from oozy fields
abandoned to grey beds of dead grass,
black sumac, withered weed-stalks,
mud and thickets cluttered with dead leaves —
the river comes pouring in above the city
and crashes from the edge of the gorge
in a recoil of spray and rainbow mists —
(What common language to unravel?
. . combed into straight lines
from that rafter of a rock’s
A man like a city and a woman like a flower
— who are in love. Two women. Three women.
Innumerable women, each like a flower.
only one man— like a city.
William Carlos Williams
What do I want in these rooms papered with visions of money?
How much can I make by cutting my hair? If I put new heels on my shoes,
bathe my body reeking of masturbation and sweat, layer upon layer of excrement
dried in employment bureaus, magazine hallways, statistical cubicles, factory stairways,
cloakrooms of the smiling gods of psychiatry;
if in antechambers I face the presumption of department store supervisory employees,
old clerks in their asylums of fat, the slobs and dumbbells of the ego with money and power
to hire and fire and make and break and fart and justify their reality of wrath and rumor of wrath to wrath-weary man,
what war I enter and for what a prize! the dead prick of commonplace obsession,
harridan vision of electricity at night and daylight misery of thumb-sucking rage.
I would rather go mad, gone down the dark road to Mexico, heroin dripping in my veins,
eyes and ears full of marijuana,
eating the god Peyote on the floor of a mudhut on the border
or laying in a hotel room over the body of some suffering man or woman;
rather jar my body down the road, crying by a diner in the Western sun;
rather crawl on my naked belly over the tincans of Cincinnati;
rather drag a rotten railroad tie to a Golgotha in the Rockies;
rather, crowned with thorns in Galveston, nailed hand and foot in Los Angeles, raised up to die in Denver,
pierced in the side in Chicago, perished and tombed in New Orleans and resurrected in 1958 somewhere on Garret Mountain,
come down roaring in a blaze of hot cars and garbage,
streetcorner Evangel in front of City I-Tall, surrounded by statues of agonized lions,
with a mouthful of shit, and the hair rising on my scalp,
screaming and dancing in praise of Eternity annihilating the sidewalk, annihilating reality,
screaming and dancing against the orchestra in the destructible ballroom of the world,
blood streaming from my belly and shoulders
flooding the city with its hideous ecstasy, rolling over the pavements and highways
by the bayoux and forests and derricks leaving my flesh and my bones hanging on the trees.
Poems from the film
We have plenty of matches in our house
We keep them on hand always
Currently our favourite 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
It’s 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 towards heaven
When you’re a child you learn there are three dimensions
Height, width and depth
Like a shoebox
Then later you hear there’s a fourth dimension
Then some say there can be five, six, seven…
I knock off work
Have a beer at the bar
I look down at the glass and feel glad
I’m in the house
It’s nice out
Sun on cold snow
First day of spring
Or last day of winter
My legs run up the stairs
And out the door
My top half here writing
Deep Background on Tuan, Space and Place
The human measure of space: review of “Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective”, by Yi-Fu Tuan
Links and Resources