January 3, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

Polis is This

At home for Christmas, I picked up a 1971 issue of The Massachusetts Review, with a special “Gathering for Charles Olson.” In one of the gathering’s pieces, “Charles Olson: A Preface,” William Aiken notes with dismay the odd combination of critical attention and neglect given Olson up to that year:

The critical reception accorded Gloucester poet Charles Olson is not likely to be a matter for academic self-gratulation in the coming years. Although Olson has been regarded as an important influence on modern poetry for the past twenty years, his own poetry has received almost no attention.

While Olson’s prose was dealt with and often dismissed, the poetry was scrupulously avoided. Aiken continues:

Such summary treatment of a man considered by many to be a major poet must be unique in literary affairs. It’s a little as though critics of Yeats could not get beyond his paragraphs on the phases of the moon.

A quarter century later, Aiken’s sentiments have been echoed and acted upon by another Gloucester resident, filmmaker Henry Ferrini, whose new documentary, Polis is This: Charles Olson and The Persistence of Place, stands to rally new readers around the man Ferrini calls “The Big O.”

Lasting only an hour, Polis is This manages a compact introduction to Olson’s history, poetics, and landscape. In addition to primary footage of the man reading, lecturing, and ambling, are commentators ranging from Gloucester locals to family, scholars, and poets. A delivery man, on being asked if he’d heard of Olson, responds, “The poet? The big guy?” and goes on to say he appeared, as a child, in one of Olson’s poems.

For me, Olson’s work has always been daunting to approach. My curiosity has been sustained by the esteem in which others held it–Robert Creeley, William Sylvester, Kenneth Warren in his essays in the journal House Organ. But try as I did on my own, I was held to a distance by the allusions, local and mythical, and the cryptic phrasing–what Aiken called “Olson’s private allusiveness and his habit of letting the reader provide predicates for some of his sentences.”

Polis is This reinvigorated my interest and provided footholds into the substance of Olson’s work that have enhanced my subsequent reading. I was particularly helped by the passages where Olson’s recitations are given follow-the-bouncing-ball treatment: the poem, on screen, is filled in as it’s read, giving a sense of how it is intended to sound. Also clarifying is the footage of a reading of “Maximus to Gloucester, Letter 27 [witheld],” with the ephiphanic closing from which Ferrini takes his film’s title:

An American

is a complex of occasions,

themselves a geometry

of spatial nature.

I have this sense,

that I am one

with my skin

Plus this–plus this:

that forever the geography

which leans in

on me I compell

backwards I compell Gloucester

to yield, to



is this

As he reaches the poem’s final statement, Olson gestures–pushes his hands from from his body, from “the geography / which leans in”–and in so doing makes physical the poem’s central, democratic idea: the land that shapes us is also shaped by us. Where Olson intones Gloucester, you put your own neighborhood’s name.

There’s far more to Polis is This than introduction–I haven’t even mention John Malkovich’s contribution!–and so both curious and cognoscenti would do well to visit the film’s website for its trailer and list of future screenings.