Friday, November 02, 2007


If Polis is This: Charles Olson and The Persistence of Place isn’t the best motion picture ever made about an American poet – a claim attributed to Bill Corbett on the film’s website – it’s mostly because What Happened to Kerouac? the 1986 documentary made by Richard Lerner & Lewis Mac Adams (with major post-production editorial work from co-producer Nathaniel Dorsky) set the bar so very high. But perhaps because Kerouac in death as in life has long been an icon in the American popular imagination, while Olson remains primarily of interest to other poets, the task of these two films is fundamentally different.

In fact, one of the best sequences in Polis comes early on with the filmmaker wandering around Gloucester, Massachusetts, asking the locals what they recall of Olson, who died, mind you, more than three decades before. A surprising number remember “the big guy,” a reasonable way to characterize a poet 6’8” tall – one of them is able to cite the passage where he and his buddies can be found in Maximus. This film is full of such small, fine touches, while offering a narrative of Olson’s life and an exposition of his main ideas, particularly his appropriation of Robert Creeley’s “form is never more than an extension of content” (explained here by Creeley himself with assistance from NFL film footage!). Another absolutely amazing moment is Pete Seeger’s explanation of how Charles Olson caused Woody Guthrie to write Bound for Glory. That by itself is worth the price of admission.

Most of the limits of the film are the consequence of attempting to pack so much into a one-hour time slot. Polis hardly touches the last decade of Olson’s life – particularly odd given his status as a late-starter & his death at 59 – which also means that the question of alcohol is never addressed. Nor the ways in which the death of his wife Betty in an auto accident in 1964 set him emotionally adrift. And there are themes within his work, places literally, that the film could have detailed far better for the reader who has not (yet) wandered the streets of Gloucester with Maximus as their map. The Cut, for one, Dogtown for another. Dogtown once was a town itself, an alternate Gloucester that sprang up before residents understood just how dependent on the proximity of the sea the community would become. As people moved east to the shore, the houses left behind were given to the inevitable widows left by shipwrecks, etc. Finally the neighborhood was abandoned & reverted to the brambles of “open space,” tho you can still find the foundations of the old houses there. It’s so overgrown today that visitors are warned to take compasses and let friends know they’ve gone in. To be “from Dogtown,” like Olson’s alter ego, is to be from the wild, abandoned, tragic past. This is not Russell Crowe’s Maximus, but the Creature from the Black Lagoon as oversized, absent-minded professor. If this be persona, it is the most complex, fascinating example of such in American literature.

Perhaps the film’s main weakness, tho, is one that it shares with What Happened to Kerouac? The scarcity of women & women’s voices. There are just a handful, notably Susan Thackery, Anne Waldman & Diane DiPrima. The most glaring omission turns out to be Frances Boldereff, Olson’s mistress during the period in which he formulated “Projective Verse” and Maximus both. Even if it’s overblown to set Boldereff up as Olson’s muse, the “secret sauce” that makes possible these epoch-changing projects, her impact was nonetheless profound. Her absence, even if it was a condition of the family’s cooperation, doesn’t serve Olson well.

But the larger problem isn’t so much the erasure of Boldereff – whose existence wasn’t widely known even to Olson’s friends at the time – as it is the whole question of the New American Poetry’s way of relating to women. The Allen anthology includes just four females among its 44 contributors: Denise Levertov, Barbara Guest, Madeline Gleason and Helen Adam. Only Levertov, who died in 1997, would have made sense in the context of this film, tho she never was a student at Black Mountain and largely abandoned her New American roots after 1970. (Three of the four, it’s worth noting, were personal friends of Robert Duncan’s, who did teach briefly at the North Carolina college, but whose relationship to women as a gay male differed from Olson’s machismo.) One wonders if future conferences & panels concerning male New American poets generally won’t end up having the same unspoken requirement that conferences do today regarding Ezra Pound’s politics, where either a panel or, at the least, a speaker is compelled to address the problems of fascism & anti-semitism. We may just need an extended series of “Olson & Women,” “Creeley & Women,” “O’Hara & Women,” “Blackburn & Women,” “Duncan & Women,” "Eigner & Women," “Baraka & Women” events.

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