“Polis is This: The Persistence of Place”
A Review Essay
By Peter Bearse
Henry Ferrini’s newly released movie on the life of Charles
Let it be said at the outset that Ferrini was engaged in a heroic undertaking – to capture the meaning of the life of a poet larger than life whose history and legacy were complex. We should be thankful for the persistence and personal sacrifice that served to bring the first Olson documentary to completion after several years of effort. Nevertheless, we should not fail to plumb the reasons for some disappointment with the final product, as Olson appreciated a plumb…”to read sand in the butter at the bottom of a lead, and be precise about what sort of bottom your vessel’s over.” The nexus of poet and place that Olson, “this man of my own place,” represents is far too important not to “read” it right.
One approach to evaluation of a work of art is to examine it in light of the goals and perspectives of its creators. A prospectus for the documentary stated:
Another perspective to inform a review is that of context,
to recognize that the work in question usually does not stand alone; it is part
of a producer’s corpus of creative work. Indeed; Ferrini has done two prior
documentary films on American writers in relation to the places important to
them – one, Poem in Action, on another fine Gloucester poet, his uncle
Vincent Ferrini; another on Jack Kerouac, in Lowell Blues. Both are
very good films, fine syntheses of
poems, poets, visual perspectives of their cities and background music. In this
reviewer’s opinion, both do a better job than Polis is This in making
the join between poets and places. But the subject of Olson and
The immediately problematic terms in the Ferrini prospectus been highlighted above in bold – “dynamic,” “historian,” “universality” and “mankind.” The most difficult of these to understand and to document is the first, the “dynamic between poet and place,” so let us table it for awhile. The remaining three suggest that the filmmaker may have started with some degree of misunderstanding of his subject.
Olson was not a historian. He delved into history
selectively, to find both historical and pre-historical [indeed, geological]
factors that supported his selection of
Pretense to “universality” and references to “mankind” were foreign to a poet whose (arguably) greatest prose essay was entitled “The Human Universe.” He traced the pretense to Plato and ascribed to it a bad influence on Western Civilization. The concept of “mankind” was foreign to one to whom the human universe is unremittingly variegated, one who described himself as “contained within my own skin” like others, each a unique individual.
Now, to the dynamic.
The film documentary has not been able to capture this most complex among
categories. How this could have been accomplished, this reviewer does not know,
but it would have helped if Ferrini had paid more attention to an aspect of the
poet’s personal history that is quite central to Olson’s life project – the
poet as a political being. Ferrini alludes to this; first, in his prospectus,
stating that “Olson charged himself with restoring
For much of the dynamic is political in nature. The “polis”
¨ “Let those who use words cheap, let them not talk of what is good for the city…and that word meant to mean not a single thing the least more than what it does mean…”
¨ “So can know polis, not as localism, not as musick…”(or “perjorocracy”).
¨ “Not the many but the few who care…”
¨ “The new way does promote cleverness; the main chance is its law…”
¨ “You see, I can’t get away from the old measure of care…”
¨ “Let them not make you as the nation is…”
¨ “There are only eyes in all heads, to be looked out of…”
¨ “…if they dare afford to take the risk…”
Thus, the film as a documentary of the political orientation of the poet is weak overall and misleading in part. The weakness of its political tea becomes apparent near the end of the documentary, when an Olson scholar known to be an expert on the political aspects of Olson’s poetry and career, Craig Stormont, is brought on to bear witness to a generality, that Olson’s legacy pertains to “change” (will and ability to). What is misleading is the seeming implication that the film’s limited treatment of the political aspect of Olson seems to convey -- that the poet’s “greatest generation” politics are indistinguishable from the latter day, new-age liberalism of the film’s producers and commentators. What political implications may be drawn from Olson’s poetry to help us address what he called “the necessity of now” is very much open to debate.
Theoretically, there is also a dynamic inherent in contradiction, but the film fails to confront some important features that are paradoxical if not outright contradictory. One is “ownership; another, “back,” as in reverse or looking to the past. Consider ownership. On the one hand, Olson lauds ownership as represented by Portugese vessel owners, who are but “extensions of their diesels.” The documentary overlooks this aspect while focusing on other, negative constructions of ownership; e.g., “the musickracket of ownership” in Song 3. A contradiction not confronted cannot be resolved.
As for “back,” there is the tension between “back is not better” (illustrated by the nice vignette of Olson’s car, unable to move in reverse) and “back, back” in terms of Olson’s methodology, ever seeking deep historical roots. But no attempt is made to bridge the multi-millenial gap between “ice age” and “shopping mall.” There may be some partial or seeming resolution, however, in the observation that people’s obliviousness to history “perpetuates continued consumption.”
More of the dynamic between poet and place is lost because
the movie offers too many segments that are indeed “disembodied and
disconnected.” There is a distinct lack of continuity to build a “sense of
place” and the meanings, especially dynamic aspects, of that place as perceived
by the poet and projected via his words-in-action or actionable words. The
movie suffers from inadequate resolution of the basic questions faced by any
artist or producer: questions of selection, emphasis and organization. Some
scenes strike one as either quite anomalous or unrelated to the film’s other
parts. The viewer too often finds oneself asking ‘why this segment’ or
scratching one’s head wondering ‘what is this scene doing here.’? Why, for
instance, include the scene featuring Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie? How does
the scene featuring “Betty”, revealing something of Olson’s sexuality, fit in a
movie that pays so little attention to the poet’s personal life? What’s the
point of including bad art in the form of Ed Sanders’ singing “Okeonos”?
(&c). The disparate, spasmodic nature of such inclusions undercuts the
supposedly “holistic” or integrative nature of the poet’s own mind-set,
methodology and writing, as highlighted in the segment on
The pointer provided to viewers at the outset, to the Greek
city-state as a model of “polis,” is more pregnant with meaning than the film’s
interlocutors or producers seem to realize. For the Greek vision is basically
tragic, having nothing whatsoever to do with the more or less emotive or
transcendant images or ideas that crop up here and there in the film. Peter
Anastas remarks sadly on how
The latter, tragic outcome arises almost inexorably because
of a deep-rooted paradox in Olson’s work -- if only the film had been designed
to show this! On the one hand, he observes a working landscape and honors
“those who have polis in their eye.” On the other, his is a distinctly elitist
view, as in “It is not the many but the few who care.” Curiously, but in a way
that sometimes detracts from the producer’s ability to honor his own goals, the
film is also (and, in this reviewer’s view, unnecessarily) elitist to the
extent that it over-relies upon poets, intellectuals and arcane referents. Olson
was definitely a part of this hyper-intellectual community of souls who, like
any such community, communicate with each other in language that is largely
foreign to the apocryphal “man in the street” -- as one could readily tell if
the scenes involving the Gloucester working men and women were closely juxtaposed
with those featuring poets and intellectuals. The use of
June 20, 2007
 MP, “Letter 5,” Butterick edition, p.27.
 MP: “I, Maximus of Gloucester, to You,” in Butterick’s edition, p.8.
 A limited attempt to address this issue was made by the author in the context of Gloucester’s “now” circa 1995, published by the Gloucester Daily Times in two parts (Sept. 25th & 26th), “Politics and city elections”, Part I and Part II, respectively.