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The Poet and the City: Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place

Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Ruth Witt Diaman in "Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place."

Documentary films about poets often fall into one of two traps: Either they assume that the poet’s life is primarily constituted by the circumstances of his or her social milieu—that is, by those famous people the poet slept with, fought with, or about whom the poet wrote nasty things; or they assume that each line of each poem has some corresponding reality in the biographical details of the poet’s life. The former assumes that the life of the poet takes place outside the act of writing, the latter that writing is simply a transcription of a poet’s experience exactly as it occurred.

Fortunately, Henry Ferrini, director of Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, which screens at Hallwalls Cinema at the Church on Saturday at 4pm, avoids both of these traps. Clocking in at a compact 55 minutes, this made-for-PBS documentary manages its biographical, theoretical, and poetical elements with remarkable finesse.

For those who don’t know Charles Olson (see my other piece on Olson in this week’s In the Margins for more detail), he was a poet from Massachusetts who wrote a very long poem (or poem cycle, if you prefer) called The Maximus Poems, which takes as its subject the polis (the Greek word for city-state) of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which he called home for much of his life. Examining this old fishing port on Cape Anne, just off the coast of Massachusetts, from a vast historical and cosmological perspective, Olson manages a poetic and intellectual feat rivaled by few poets of the last century.

Ferrini uses a number of film techniques to get at the complexity of Olson’s vision. Aerial shots of Gloucester suggest the cosmological view Olson takes of his subject: the contours of the land, the border between earth and sea, the shape of the place as an organic whole. What makes this technique successful is it’s juxtaposition later in the film with images of Gloucester seen from more intimate angles: fisherman loading their catch into a bloody crib, a child running along a beach, water dripping from a faucet. Rather than re-tell the archetypal tale of “the great poet,” Ferrini, a Gloucester native, tries to look at Gloucester through the poet’s eyes.

The result is an impressionistic, yet informative and moving document about the act of creation that neither shies away from nor oversimplifies the poems themselves. At various points, we hear and see Olson reading his own poems. These readings are punctuated by surprisingly effective recitations by actor John Malkovich, who manages to read them as poems whose life is in the their rhythms, independent of his ability to embody the emotions contained therein.

Polis Is This is peopled with many scholars, poets, and critics who fill in some of the gaps left by the poems. Amiri Baraka, Diane Di Prima, Anne Waldman, Robert Creeley, Ammiel Alcalay and others give voice to the political and historical circumstances that gave birth to Olson’s perspective and also to the critique he lodged against the destructive forces of capitalism.

Perhaps the most affecting part for me was a scene in which a waitress at a Gloucester diner recalls that Olson often had to sign for his lunch and then pay later when he had some money. He always apologized for not tipping, she says, and always paid up later, overtipping in the process. She describes Olson as a man that never put on any airs. Then she goes on to say their interactions reminded her of the poem by Emily Dickinson that begins, “I’m Nobody! Who Are you?” After a brief pause, in which she seems to be trying to recall the next line, she slowly, haltingly, but with growing confidence, recites the entire poem from memory:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you—Nobody—Too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d banish us—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!

How public—like a Frog—

To tell one’s name—the livelong June—

To an admiring Bog.

Here the poem enters daily life in a way every poet hopes it will, but in which it rarely does. The same can be said of this film.