Olson at work: a review of Polis Is This by Henry Ferrini
by Michael Boughn
Undertaking to make a film about Charles Olson is a bit like deciding to take the Ford out for a Sunday drive—in Afghanistan. At first glance, it seems like a straight-forward idea. But before you know it, you’re facing a, shall we say, explosive situation. In the case of Olson, the minefield has to do with the expectations of the community of Olson’s readers. They are a loyal and sometimes even obsessive bunch. Perhaps more so than any other poet of his generation, Olson invoked extraordinarily passionate responses from his readers. Partly this was due to his immense magical presence. And partly it was due to the power and provocations of his writing. Both facts instill many of his readers with a kind of intense, focused concentration most poets can only dream of.
That’s the up side. The down side is that the knowledge that comes with that concentration of attention has been known to breed a sense of—say, ownership, or identification. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It would be a wonderful world if more people felt that way about more poets. But knowing obscure details about Olson’s geographies, or equally obscure details about his life or the proliferating significance of some gnomic utterances sometimes leads Olson’s readers to assume their Olson has an authority that trumps all others. It can lead to an obstreperous narcissism that fails to see other possibilities. For this reason alone, we owe Henry Ferrini an enormous vote of thanks for his courage in undertaking such a project at all, knowing as he no doubt must have, that many of the people who should have been supporting him would instead be condemning him for not making a film about “their” Olson.
This obviously raises the question of “which” Olson Ferrini gives us in Polis Is This. I would actually restate the question and ask, for whom has he made this film, because you can’t understand which Olson he gives us without understanding to whom that Olson is addressed. Not to put too fine an Arnoldian critical point on it, this is an absolutely crucial move as a basis for having anything useful to say about the work, as opposed to general griping that finally amounts to nothing more than the complaint “this Olson isn’t MY Olson.” As Alice famously pointed out when the baby in her arms turned into a pig, “If it had grown up, it would have made a dreadfully ugly child: but it makes a rather handsome pig, I think.”
Ferrini’s baby is a complex occasion, but I think it’s fair to state a couple of obvious points right off the bat. It is not a film that was made for the specialists of the Charles Olson Society (which, let’s hope, doesn’t turn into the kind of beast Olson excoriated in the Melville Society). Nor is it a film made for the MLA, that other group of different specialists. Neither of these bunches really needs more information on Olson. For better or for worse, they have plenty, and if they want more, they know how to get it. The film is not even, I would argue, primarily for poets, although it’s full of wonderful images of them, including Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Ed Sanders, Robin Blaser, Robert Creeley, and a terrific reading of Olson by Gerrit Lansing. Given the film’s defining gestures, its structure, its imagery, and its tone, it seems primarily addressed to people who not only are unfamiliar with Charles Olson, who in fact probably never even heard of him, but are resistant to the very idea of reading poetry: young, curious, but ignorant, not just of poetry, but of history—unsatisfied with many of the circumstances they find themselves in, but largely unaware of how they came to be.
Into this condition, Ferrini’s film intercedes in a number of ways. It uses the occasion of presenting a view of the life of the poet as an opportunity to make a basic argument for—not just the importance of poetry, but its absolute, Emersonian centrality to the lives of ordinary people. It does this quite effectively by making many of the spokespersons in the film ordinary people from around Gloucester: a barber, a waitress, a fisherman, a truck driver. Some of the interviews may have been less spontaneous than the film makes out, but ultimately that seems irrelevant to the force of their presences. For me, the biggest knock-out was the waitress who quotes, not Olson, but Emily Dickinson, in order to talk about Olson’s lack of self-aggrandizement: “I am Nobody / Who are you” she recites from memory in her diner with exquisite delight and recognition. It is equally marvelous when the truck driver talks excitedly of inhabiting the landscapes of Olson’s poems with his friends when they were kids, noting that Olson even included them in the work. You don’t get much further away from the self-confirming coteries of inbred poetry than that. And it usefully locates Olson exactly where he wanted to be.
Ferrini doesn’t stop with making an argument for the importance and relevance of poetry, however. This is an activist film. It is deeply concerned with the intersection of Olson’s poetry and politics. But it doesn’t simply present Olson’s politics as an academic abstraction. Rather it intervenes directly into the issues that so concerned Olson, especially as they circulate around the loss of place to a criminally careless and stupid adoration of development at any cost. This is the sense of polis that anchors the film. It is not primarily a technical exposition of the complexities and contradictions of Olson’s thinking on place. Rather it is an invocation of an actual sense of loss aimed at making that connection in the minds of its viewers.
Ferrini approaches this issue through very powerful imagery of the actual physical destruction of Gloucester juxtaposed with passages from Olson’s poetry and a commentary on his local political engagement. The effect is to present Olson as a deeply human, approachable character, appealing in his commonness, his commitment, his concern, and his language. Many of us who live and work with poetry, or who have long been committed to Olson’s work, may forget how terribly esoteric it all can seem to the uninitiated. Many of us may no longer care. But this film does, and that is its strength.
Ferrini’s portrait of Olson moves persuasively between theses various dimensions, linking together the magic of poetry, the ornery immediacy of Olson’s politics, and the world which is the daily experience of ordinary people. Someone who has never even heard of the Pleistocene will find themselves introduced by this film to an astonishing moment in which it shines through the present, locating them not just in history but in a moment in history when suddenly their own anxiety and uneasiness about the way things are going takes on a depth and resonance previously unsuspected to them. The final scene of the young people in Ammiel Alcalay’s poetry class animatedly discussing their discovery of Olson and his significance to them is in that sense a particularly fitting and moving close to the film. Ferrini has carefully crafted a tool for reaching precisely the uninitiated, arguably those who, if not in need of poetry in general and Olson’s poetry in particular, might at least have some scales drop from their eyes by their exposure to it.