Speaking Beings

I’ve been to see Paterson, and I am frustrated, intrigued, and in the end fairly outraged by it. You may have seen it – or plan to see it, but in case you didn’t, the blurb reads:

A hardworking bus driver (Adam Driver) in Paterson, N.J., writes heartfelt poems every day before his shift begins.

In the first place, they aren’t ‘heart-felt’, if by that you mean the outpourings of a gifted but instinctive untutored genius. They are carefully crafted and highly accomplished poems in the style of William Carlos Williams (who gets a lot of references in the film), and I quite like them. The bus driver has obviously been very well educated and has chosen to live as a bus driver for unspecified reasons, which never quite become clear. He may even like it, or like the town where he lives, but we can’t be sure, as he spends most of the film looking morose and misunderstood. He lives with his wife, a woman who paints everything in black and white and dreams of being a country singer – although she can’t even play a guitar, and running her own cupcake business. She wants him to publish his poems, but he doesn’t even make copies of them, and they get eaten by their dog.

The denouement of the film comes when he is given a new notebook by a Japanese tourist and begins to write again. Poetry, it seems, is not for publication or reward. It is a private act of personal integrity – a quiet, unshowy keeping faith with oneself, and not for anyone else.

It says a lot for this film that I can understand that this might be a credible outcome. The fault may be in the direction or the acting, but I came out of it raging. A little bit of humour, contentment or openness might have made the whole proposition seem more plausible, but the inflated reverence for the central character raises some ugly issues. The other residents of the town are presented as harmless but self-deluding fantasists, playing at love, or politics or careers; Paterson doesn’t share or even talk about his work with them, and we feel we are being told they are unworthy of it. His indulgence of his wife’s whims looks patronising (her interior designs are actually stunning  – think less Cruella de Ville, more Bridget Riley, and her cupcake business is a success), and his refusal to read her his poems  – which she obviously loves, and understands – is hurtful, especially as he spends a lot of time by himself writing them. And leaving his book about is probably the most passive-aggressive thing I’ve seen on film, calculated to show her that her appreciation doesn’t matter to him at all. And his assertion at the end that he is a bus driver, not a poet, is a lie.

Now I do buy the possibility of poetry as a spiritual practice. And I do buy that you don’t actually have to publish poetry if you write it. But then you can’t use it as your way of being in the world. I am very taken with Julia Kristeva’s idea that humans are ‘speaking beings’ – which implies that we not only have something we need to express, but also that we need an experience that something will listen and respond. Our lives are a constant dialogue, not only with the people we live with, but with the weather and our environment, the news we listen to, the work we do, the things we work on. If you write poetry for yourself only, it might help you focus on the conversations you most need to have – but your conversation with the world has to have something else in it, not just a sullen with-holding silence.

Over the years I’ve seen many conversations about who can be called a poet, and I like to keep the term as inclusive as possible, without issues of quality or relevance or recognition. I don’t like to see it as a status, especially not an elevated elitist one,and I really don’t like to see the kind of debate that inhibits anyone from presuming to write. But I think the difference between ‘someone who writes poetry’ and ‘a poet’, is that a poet sees her work as her way of engaging with the world – as a part of her conversation with the world that she is accountable for. Publication, recognition or reward may not be relevant. But communication, listening, responding, making a gift of your work that is of some worth – that’s the point.

Today I hand over to the next Makar of the Federation of Writers (Scotland) – Andy Jackson. He has two collections published by Red Squirrel Press, and has edited the anthologies Split Screen and Double Bill, which have given so much joy, both on the page and in performance. He also writes Otwituaries, tweet-length obituaries of significant people – you aren’t properly dead until Andy has recorded the fact! I would like to take the occasion to thank the Federation for a wonderful year, and hope that Andy has as much fun as I did!

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