Airing now on PBS
From its first shot of an eye with a flashing iris that yields to light playing upon the ocean, Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place, establishes itself as a meditation on the life and poetic vision of the 20th century American poet Charles Olson and his muse America’s oldest seaport, Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Writing in the Village Voice in 1983, author and cultural commentator Nick Tosches referred to Olson, the last director of the famed avant-garde Black Mountain College, as “one of the greatest our century has heard.” Olson’s manifesto Projective Verse inspired a generation of poets including William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, and the Beats. Olson is widely credited with coining the term “postmodern.”
Rather than unspool its subject’s life in a standard documentary narrative, Polis intersperses cinematic interpretations of Olson’s poetry with interviews with townspeople, scholars and poets such as Amiri Baraka, Diane Di Prima, and Jonathan Williams. These talking heads help provide an introduction to Olson’s life and legacy in context, but fail to capture the essence of the man. For that, the film leans on Olson’s poetry, as read by Olson and by John Malkovich. Voiceovers of Olson’s poems are juxtaposed with contemporary and historical images of the Gloucester harbor scenes they describe. While some of these shots of Gloucester are undeniably beautiful—and help capture the town’s unique character as America’s oldest seaport—they merely scratch the surface of Olson’s poetry. His work is too dense and complex to be revealed through this treatment.
The archival footage of Olson talking and reading his own poetry drives viewer attention. Olson, who stood six foot eight, doesn’t merely read his poems, he performs them. Casually pausing to take a drag from his cigarette or a sip from his beer, Olson reads in a husky whisper both cool and inspired. His expressive face and gestures make plain that for Olson poetry was a vital, physical process. In this footage, Olson’s poems become the high-energy constructs he intended them to be and it becomes clear why Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac called Olson “the great fire source.”
Polis will screen on WNET on April 24th at 2:30 a.m. as part of April is Poetry Month. A list of additional screenings on PBS affiliates nationwide can be found on the film’s website http://www.polisisthis.com.
Elyssa East is the author of the forthcoming book Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in an Island Ghost Town.