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Review of Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place

Review of Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place

 (869 or 627 words)


My daughter’s taking A.P. English at Auburn High. I told her to ask her teacher if he had ever read Charles Olson. She did ask him and his response was “who’s that?” I had assumed (always dangerous) that advanced placement students would be exposed to advanced material. Wrong. A film screening this April (National Poetry Month) on many PBS stations, including Seattle’s KCTS on April 24th at 12N, celebrates the life of Olson, one of the biggest U.S. poets who ever lived. Polis in This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place is the movie and it is part biography, part love letter to Gloucester, Massachusetts and part extension of the very work Olson did and called us to do. That is to find out for ourselves and act.


Six foot seven and over three hundred pounds, Olson was a bureaucrat in the Roosevelt administration, but it was the horrors of Nagasaki, Hiroshima and the Nazi death camps at Buchenwald that prompted a career change. Henry Ferrini’s film tracks Olson’s most important contributions to North American culture, many of which will begin to come into focus as the giant Ponzi scheme - our economy and way of being in the world – continues to unravel. Among those cultural contributions is an enhanced notion of the power of place.


John Stilgoe, Professor of Landscape History, at Harvard University says in Polis is This, “The local environment is the prism through which anyone’s understanding of the cosmos is filtered; to look at the outer world from a vantage point in the local. For many people the local landscape was very uninteresting and ordinary, but for him, it was the threshold to the world.” Olson’s epic The Maximus Poems tracks the history of Gloucester and the ramifications of historical events.


In addition to place, it was Olson’s method that is important. Salient lines from his essay Projective Verse,  read in the film by actor John Malkovich, suggest that the poem is an energy transfer from the poet, from wherever he or she got it, though the poem to the reader. The method should be spontaneous and form is never more than an extension of content. As his friend Robert Creeley was quoted in the film as saying, Olson’s was, “a poetry that can inform itself by what it’s doing, rather than what it “should be” doing or “must” do or “has to” do or “has done”, is a much more active and engaging way of proceeding.”


And then to use the method and act; in Olson’s case, write; fight the filling of wetlands and the destruction of classic local buildings with letters to the editor, and teach others. As part of Black Mountain College, he played a large role in that institution’s rich legacy as a center for the North American avant garde, with such teachers as John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham and others, and students like Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Dorn.


The movie is a primer. It doesn’t go too deep into Olson’s work or his life, including the warts and all, but that is not its purpose. It is for the A.P. English teachers whose idea of contemporary poetry is that verse written with in a manner beholden to the 19th century. The film is for Gloucester, a town that still does not know what it had in Olson, or about its own sense of place. Most of all this film is for the person who intuits that Olson’s process is revolutionary because it empowers and allows someone to act with their whole self in this world; a world that values division and a parts mentality. For someone who intuits that you can find out for yourself.


Olson was, and his work remains, a threat to the U.S. way of life. He threatened people who’ve bought the lie of advertising because he not only noticed what they hadn’t noticed, he scrutinized and discovered significance in things most people ignored. He  knew by 1945 at the latest, the dangers of an industry-generated culture; that if advertising culture was telling you to zig, you better zag, and quickly, as evidenced by a section of his life’s work, The Maximus Poems, Song 3


        This morning of the small snow

I count the blessings, the leak in the faucet

which makes of the sink time, the drop

of the water on water as sweet

as the Seth Thomas

in the old kitchen

my father stood in his drawers to wind (always

he forgot the 30th day, as I don’t want to remember

the rent

             a house these days

so much somebody else’s,



                      Or the plumbing,

that it doesn’t work, this I like, have even used paper clips

as well as a string to hold the ball up. And flush it

with my hand

                       But that the car doesn’t, that no moving thing moves

without that song I’d void my ear of, the musicracket

of all ownership…


In the land of plenty, have

nothing to do with it

                                 take the way of

the lowest,


your legs, go

contrary, go





Paul E. Nelson

908 I St NE #4

Auburn, WA 98002-4146