Boring Poetry: “Paterson” and the Observation of Repression

by Curtis Graham


The setting is a lustless marriage bed with gray sheets. Paterson lives an objectively boring life.  The only thing more boring than his job as a bus driver, is his poetry.  He is content.  If he has aspirations, we don’t know what they are.  We keep waiting to discover what he’s repressing.

Paterson’s poems appear handwritten across the screen, narrated earnestly in fits and starts by an endearing Adam Driver. The audience is part of the world with whom Paterson is afraid to share his work. We never hear a completed poem, and have to take his wife’s word that his poetry is spectacular. Driver’s voice expounds about the brand of matches he uses, and the burning sensation that love can give. He pairs physical descriptions with a writerly affect that even poetry students could snub.

But first person camera moves immerse us in Paterson’s existence, no matter how bland, and reveal that his sense of self is derived from observation of other people’s lives. Sitting at the front of his bus, he is a pair of eyes in a rearview mirror.

A middle school boy tells his friend he’ll dress as a shadow for Halloween and the camera shows us Paterson’s view: their feet nearly touching beneath the seat. This image is mirrored in the feet of two construction workers. They exchange stories of their weekend hook-ups. A woman offers them romance, and each turns her down for vague reasons. They bounce their heels on the floor, their feet as close as possible without touching.  The camera rises, and we see the men sitting close together. One looks away before affirming that, definitely, he will call the girl back. A vertical pole divides them.

In the climax of the film, Paterson’s dog destroys his poetry notebook. His unphotocopied, unsaved, kept secret from the world, notebook, and in feeling Paterson’s loss, the poems gain significance. Each represents an unrealized life pulled through that rear-view mirror not from his own repression, but the repression of others. And we can finally feel his loneliness.

After the loss of his notebook, Paterson proclaims he is not a poet, but a sage Japanese tourist knows better and presents him with a new one, filled with blank pages. Where this convenient stereotype came from or went to subsequently, is uncommented on, but Paterson is redeemed and begins writing again.

Adam Driver’s voice returns to give us the line, but by the time the screen fades to black, we hardly remember it. The scrawled letters fade into the single word that is important to us: Paterson. We’re left with the hope that Paterson will continue seeing the people around him, even if they never see him.