The landscape of a great poet

The show highlights Charles Olson's ties to Gloucester. The show highlights Charles Olson's ties to Gloucester.
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / April 4, 2009
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Charles Olson (1910-70) was not someone you'd want to run into in a dark alley. Equal parts bear and shaman, he stood 6 feet 7 inches tall and looked like Paul Volcker on a bender. He was, however, someone you might well want to run into in a library, dark or otherwise.

A poet of rare ambition and even rarer incantatory power, Olson liked to describe himself as "an archaeologist of morning." There's a dawn-like sweep and sense of surprise to his verse, most notably his great unfinished project, "The Maximus Poems." Hearing Olson intone his poetry in fussy yet primeval tones, as one often does in "Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place," one gets a sense of how thrilling - and maddening - it must have been to be in his presence.

Channel 2 broadcasts "Polis Is This," which was directed by Henry Ferrini and written by Ken Riaf, tomorrow at 7 p.m. It's PBS's bow to National Poetry Month. It's a dangerous bow, though. A few minutes of "Polis" are enough to show up "Antiques Roadshow" and Wayne Dyer exhortations for the blithering pap they are. Charles Olson presiding over a pledge drive, now that would be a sight to see.

Olson's presence was, and is, most deeply felt in Gloucester. It's the place that persists of the film's subtitle. A Worcester native, Olson first went there with his family to spend the summer when he was 5. He lived in Gloucester much of his life. He came to see it in near-mythic terms as the classic Greek "polis," or city-state, the ideal size for civic virtue and harmony. Much given to the cosmic, Olson rooted himself in the local up on Cape Ann.

Ferrini, whose uncle was the late Gloucester poet Vincent Ferrini, is a resident of the town. He's made previous documentaries on Salem, Jack Kerouac's Lowell, and the maverick North Shore radio broadcaster Simon Geller. Ferrini conveys visually the social and intellectual harmony Olson saw in Gloucester with lyrical images of the town. Ferrini has a terrific eye - it's not too much to call him a poet of seeing - and these scenes far transcend mere picture-postcard prettiness.

Ferrini also conveys Olson's sense of community, and the diversity implicit within it, with his range of interview subjects. We hear from academics and poets (including Amiri Baraka, Robert Creeley, and Anne Waldman), but also a waitress, barber, and UPS driver. There's even footage from the 1974 Super Bowl game, which plays off of a remark from Creeley about spontaneity in poetry. It's splendidly incongruous. Conversely, the shots of a graduate seminar discussing Olson's poetry are incongruous in a different way, and it's not splendid.

Like its title, "Polis Is This" is somewhat opaque. Actually, it's a bit incoherent. The use of multiple readers, for example, for Olson's poetry can be confusing. (The most prominent is John Malkovich.) Still, to be true to his subject, Ferrini almost needs to downplay coherence. Tidiness and lucidity were not Charles Olson's strengths.

What interests Ferrini is evocation and association, not description and summary. Most arts programming on television offers radical simplification in gee-whiz tones. Ferrini seeks to enlarge, rather than reduce, a viewer's sense of Olson. And the awe he feels toward his subject, while not unrelated to the gee whiz, bears the same relation to it that a redwood does to a geranium.

POLIS IS THIS: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place

On: Channel 2

Time: Tomorrow night 7-8