Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place

Charles Olson was above all a poet of place, and whatever one thinks of his verse, it is hard not to sympathize with his championing of the unique and the indigenous.

Polis is This

Airtime: Various
Cast: Amiri Baraka, John Malkovich, Robert Creeley, Ammiel Alcalay, Charles Boer, Robin Blaser, Willie Alexander
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place
Network: PBS
US release date: 2009-03-29

Not too many years ago, there was a kind of cold war in American poetry. Academics were writing tightly controlled verse in traditional forms, while a ragged platoon of Beats, Black Mountain poets, New York School poets, language poets, postmodernists, and free-versers were producing work in opposition to what they considered to be the prevailing poetic orthodoxy.

A number of the poets in this latter group had connections to, or drew from the work of, Charles Olson. In Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, he is revealed as a great, clumsy-looking bear of a man, resembling an out-of-shape offensive lineman (he was 6'8", and weighed more than 300 pounds). In archival footage, he comes across as genially intelligent yet, at the same time, shambolic and slack, puffing away at the stub of a cigarette or trailing off at the end of an interesting notion.  

In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I believe that the so-called "academics" were actually less academic, and unquestionably less pretentious, than Olson and his fellow obscurantists. To me, Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, and Phillip Larkin, to cite a handful of first-rate formalists, wrote poems that were all the more moving for the care with which they were constructed, whereas the poets on the far side of the divide tended to unspool gauzy poems and windy pronouncements with meanings that were hard to grasp because, I suspect, that the poets themselves had not quite grasped them.

Henry Ferrini's documentary, airing on public television stations through May, is itself rather an allusive and abstract work. But it also brings to new life those poems that on the page seem choppy or indistinct. Its portrayal of Olson’s longtime home, Gloucester, Massachusetts, the setting for Olson’s massive unfinished epic, The Maximus Poems, is particularly effective.

Working with writer Ken Riaf and editor Hank Nahamkin, Ferrini weaves together an enormous amount of source material, including archival photographs and footage of Olson and his circle and of Gloucester itself; present-day reminiscences by Olson’s friends and fellow poets; poems that are presented typographically as well as in a variety of voice-overs and on-camera readings; and sensitively photographed glimpses of Gloucester today. 

These glimpses largely come in two categories: close-ups that beautifully communicate a sense of the old Gloucester as Olson, who died in 1970, might have experienced it, and broader shots of the kind of urban "renewal" (which is to say, indiscriminate urban destruction) and overdevelopment that deeply concerned Olson and that continues to this day. Olson described his concern in a fashion unusually direct for him, in words that are heard in the film: "Moan the loss, another house is gone… Bemoan the easiness of smashing anything. Bemoan a people who spend beyond themselves."

Hearing Olson’s own voice, and those of his interpreters and compatriots, helps bring his vision to life. Of the interpreters, the best of all in this film is John Malkovich, who conveys a sense that he truly understands the intent behind Olson’s words. Anyone who has seen any of the stage plays Malkovich has directed will not be surprised to hear that, unlike so many actors, he has a genuinely literary sensibility. There just isn’t enough of him in this brief documentary.

The film also features too little in the way of hard information about Gloucester then or now. We also learn little about Olson's personal life or publishing history, and just a bit, here and there, about his politics. But what the film does accomplish is to create, out of all of its variegated materials, a memorable and evocative portrait of a poet and his home.

Olson was above all a poet of place, and whatever one thinks of his verse, it is hard not to sympathize with his championing of the unique and the indigenous. In Maximus and elsewhere, Olson viewed just about everything through the lens of the local. Polis features an interview with Harvard professor John Stilgoe, who elaborates on this point:

The local environment is the prism through which anyone’s experience of the cosmos is filtered. What I think Olson did that was spectacularly successful was twist the prism in his hands all the time, and look through it toward an outer world from a vantage point in the local -- the ward, the precinct, the corner of the street, his front steps, and perhaps above all, the window in his home that looked out over what many people would say was very ordinary and uninteresting, but for him was the threshold to the world.

This well-crafted documentary, though not especially detailed, is nonetheless a memorably impressionistic portrait of a poet and his world. It’s a kind of prism that memorializes the man and the city in a way that, ironically, even Olson's poetry could not.

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