Jim Jarmusch’s recent film, Paterson, is about a poet named Paterson, set in the small town of Paterson. The lead character, played by the beguiling Adam Driver, is a bus driver who writes poems in a little book he keeps on his person. He is married to Laura, played elegantly by Golshifteh Farahani, a directionless yet supportive housewife whose artistic aspirations and interests change by the day.
Paterson, the town, also happens to be the place where William Carlos Williams wrote some of his most important poems. Apart from the overriding, almost nauseous innocence of the film – in one scene when Driver’s bus breaks down an old woman asks, “What will happen now?” as though they are from another planet – there are a number of subliminal ideas presented by the film.
One is that of the small-town poet in the modern age, with history and heritage bearing down on him. There is something aspirational and harassingly overbearing in that context. In one scene, later in the film, Driver picks up a book by Williams – titled Paterson – and looks at it longingly, as if glaring at the possibility of never accomplishing such a feat.
But the more potent questions or perhaps a dilemma that Paterson presents is that of the poet’s self-regard and his place in the modern, internet age. Driver’s character, though he writes prolifically, either doesn’t seek to publish or may not have heard of poetry journals, blogs, etc. At one point in the film his wife tells him, “The world needs to see these poems.”
The dilemma here is two-fold; on an internal level, it is important to consider whether poetry is, in principle or otherwise, a self-regarding exercise. The second is the nature of this self-regard and its position in the age of the internet, especially of social media.
The Poet’s self-regard
Unlike some fiction, poetry isn’t usually evaluated on the lines of a metric like sales, or popularity charts on portals. It has a small audience, something it will on cue also moan about, which begs the question – is that because of its disregard for the reader? The winner of the inaugural Khushwant Singh prize for Poetry, Arundhathi Subramaniam, believes the personal and the particular are vital to poetry. “We are surrounded by a language of impersonal conclusions, by the steam-rolling rhetoric of grand narratives. In this dystopia of abstract nouns and statistics, we desperately need to value the intimate, the personal, the singular, the local, and the particular. The finest poetry has reminded us that it is by looking deeply and attentively at the personal that we discover the universal, not by banishing it,” she said.
The often mystified identity of the poet in popular culture presents an anomaly in itself. While films portray them as these fascinating beings, in reality, the publisher remains at a distance, or simply does not know how to channel that mystique. How does a poet then account for an end to the means? Is it the all elusive publication, the number of readers or recognition of some sort?
“When I write a poem, I’m often writing for my version of an ideal reader,” Subramaniam said. “And finally, when after endless revisions, I put a book out into the world and receive an email or a response from a listener who has been able to tune into exactly what I intended (and has sometimes been able to discern even subtler or profounder possibilities than I intended), it can be hugely rewarding. I think this is true for many fiction writers as well, incidentally. There may be possible money and fame in the fiction game. But the deepest rewards remain the same.”
The poet in the digital age
Though the rewards for writing remain largely uniform despite the many different material manifestations of poetry, the internet has provided an opportunity to writers, poets especially, to seek such rewards. They can now reach out to a wider audience, bypass publishers and journals. But does that risk losing the quality and even the personality of poetry?
Vivek Narayanan, co-editor at Almost Island books and author of the collection, The Life and Times of Mr S, believes this is not the case. “I don’t think poetry automatically loses anything by being popular. Occasionally good poetry also does end up being popular – if it comes at the right time, in the right circumstances – and it might even help serve as a kind of ‘gateway drug’. You feel excited when a writer gets the prize she deserves! However, for me, the popularity of a poet has come to be largely irrelevant, a distraction,” he said.
But what social media and the internet have done in particular is to establish a pyramid structure in the language itself. English, being the language of the elite, automatically holds the high ground, and it is poets writing in English who take centrestage. A rickshawallah or a bus driver, like in Paterson, may only write in Tamil, Punjabi or Hindi and may never come close to an e-journal. If we discover our poems on the internet only, are we also eroding the possibility of the emergence of a Paterson-like poet?
“Yes, the rickshawallah and the bus driver might not read English poetry (or guess again, they might!) and yes, the English writer is probably advantaged on the national scene, because she writes in a language that the well-heeled read,” agreed Narayanan. “But we have to keep in mind that poems are mobile, and our society is more porous that we would expect. The mythical rickshawallah song’s might influence an English writer, and poem written by a rich English author might influence – and be transformed magnificently – by a writer from a modest background in her own work.”
Also, in a country that does not boast of global institutions for creative literature, like The Paris Review or a Granta, does social media offer at least an alternative, if not something to aspire to? Narayanan believes aspirations have to be tethered to creation and not the destination. “I don’t think it’s a good thing for a poet anywhere to aspire to being published by The Paris Review or New Yorker,” he said. “Yes, it gives you cache to have Americans who take you seriously, but it also reinforces the idea that these ‘institutions’ are somehow perfect and objective arbiters of poetry – rather than being the ongoing work of fallible editors who are more susceptible to their immediate social circles than we know,” he said.
Can the Indian poet – and poetry in general – rise?
In a multi-lingual society like India’s, it is difficult to narrow down the identity of the Indian poet. Though the ones writing in English are well-placed to carry the tag in the eyes of some readers, there are thousands writing in other languages – and a Hindi or a Tamil poet is probably read by more people than someone writing in English. It is, thus, a matter of time before the poet chooses to push his work into the public sphere on his own through social media.
“Whether poets are publishing their work in The Paris Review or on their Facebook page, we still have to decide whether the poem is good or not, and whether we’re ready to give it the attention it asks for. That’s the only thing that gives poetry wings,” said Narayanan of the liberal space that is now beginning to open up.
Though Paterson’s own poems in the film are raw and unseemly, they certainly show in him a devotion to his craft if not to the possibilities of its departure to someplace auspicious. Are there, then, good or bad poems, or poems, as mentioned in the film, “that need to be seen by the world”?
Subramaniam summed it up thus: “I don’t know if any single individual is indispensable. We write because we need to, not because the world needs us to. But when we do like what we write, we might be inclined to share it, and a few people in the world might find themselves enriched by that sharing. But does the world need us? It would be nice to believe that it did, but somehow I don’t think so!”