'To find out for yourself'

Maximus at Gloucester High School

Eyes in the polis

Where are you from? Where do you live now? What are your haunts? And what do people say about those places? Does it depend on who you ask? What’s their agenda? Who tells you what it means to be from your hometown or to live where you do? What do you know about these places? And how do you know? And what do you have to say about it?

These questions motivate the Gloucester Project, a multi-genre exploration of Cape Ann art and culture that concludes the junior year for my students at Gloucester High School. Each year during fourth quarter students immerse themselves in a piece of the local artistic and cultural environment for five to ten weeks.

Charles Olson is the project’s presiding spirit, haunting it from beginning to end. Students encounter — sometimes sympathetically, sometimes skeptically — Olson’s attitudes, depictions, and uses of Gloucester. More importantly Olson, as a powerful, persistent, and imaginative reader, researcher, walker, and observer, points the way toward the students’ own explorations.

There are no hierarchies, no infinite, no such many as mass, there are only
eyes in all heads,
to be looked out of
(Olson’s “Letter 6”)

… a verb, to find out for yourself:
’istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
self …
(“A Later Note on Letter #15”)

Following Olson’s lead students read widely about Cape Ann culture, producing reader-response notes and an annotated bibliography. Further, they follow his lead by investigating on foot, walking around and paying attention. They also investigate memory, their own and others’ through oral history. (A great deal of Olson’s own memories and others’ stories find their way into the Maximus Poems, especially but not exclusively in the early poems written when he was away from Gloucester and unable to observe it directly when composing.) Students synthesize reading, on-foot observations, and memory into a researched argument, a personal experience essay, poems, and a short play. I won’t pretend that all students embrace the project. I also won’t pretend that there’s nothing artificial about how the project plays out in an institutional setting. I will claim, however, that most students exhibit a higher degree of engagement, attention, and care during the project than at any other time during the year.

& polis,
& poets
                or in every human head I’ve known is
the attention, and
the care
                however much each of us
                chooses our own
                kin and
(“Letter 6”)

Students, indeed, choose their concentration. Over the last eight years, students have chosen a range of topics: from Olson himself, to his friends (Jonathan Bayliss, Peter Anastas, Vincent Ferrini), to subjects of his writing (Fitz Lane, Marsden Hartley, Dogtown, Stage Fort Park, the Fort), to his nemeses (T. S. Eliot, Winslow Homer, and occasional nemesis, historian Joseph Garland), to topics that at least seem not to intersect with Olson in any way. The most popular topic, by far, is St. Peter’s Fiesta, the annual Sicilian American celebration of the patron saint of fishing that has grown into a citywide demonstration of civic pride, debauchery, piety, and machismo. Most years Fiesta begins just days after the students complete their last assignments — so it is at the forefront of many minds as school days dwindle.

Ed Dorn’s “From Gloucester Out” and Olson’s “Letter 3” offer depictions of Fiesta that my students find recognizable but strange:

But never to forget
                                    that moment

when we came out of the tavern
and wandered through the carnival.
They were playing the Washington post march
but I mistook it for manhattan beach
for all around were the colored lights
of delirium
                      to the left the boats
of Italians
and ahead of us, past the shoulders
of St. Peter the magician of those fishermen

the bay
stood, and immediately in it the silent
inclined pole where tomorrow the young men
of this colony
so dangerous on the street
will fall harmlessly
into the water.
(Dorn’s “From Gloucester Out”) 


I was not born there, came, as so many of the people came,
from elsewhere. That is, my father did. And not from the Provinces,
not from Newfoundland. But we came early enough. When he came,
there were three hundred sail could fill the harbor,
if they were all in, as for the Races, say
Or as now the Italians are in, for San Pietro
and the way it is from Town Landing, all band-concert,
and fireworks
(Olson’s “Letter 3”)

A young person in Gloucester might have a strong feeling that others have gotten there before her and that her own perceptions (and imaginative uses of those perceptions) are impeded, distorted, invalidated by prior commercial and artistic representations hovering between the student and the city like a haze.

colored pictures
of all things to eat: dirty
                   And words, words, words
all over everything
                                    No eyes or ears left
to do their own doings (all

invaded, appropriated, outraged, all senses

including the mind, that worker on what is
(“The Songs of the Maximus, Song 1”)

Some students, of course, really like the picture postcard, Chamber of Commerce, Team Gloucester depiction of the city — and believe such depictions convey the truth of the place. Other students see the local reality as irredeemably tawdry and backward — “sketchy” and “lame” — compared with the possibilities for better living promised elsewhere. There are often socioeconomic and cultural insider/outsider dynamics at work in the students’ attitudes toward this place but, whatever the reasons and wherever a student falls on the “Three cheers for Gloucester” / “Gloucester sucks” spectrum, the Gloucester Project resists easy navigation but offers ample rewards to those who complete the journey.

The mu-sick of localism

Students on the cheerleading end of the spectrum tend to be excited about the project but then frustrated that I keep prodding them to do more investigative reading, to do more listening and looking, and to render their own characterizations and evaluations instead of merely repeating the ones they’ve received from sources promoting an easy, unproblematic, romanticized Gloucester exceptionalism. Examples of such sources are legion in official Gloucester literature and in a good deal of the artistic output inspired by the city. “An Heroic City,” an 1892 text found in Memorial of the celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the incorporation of the town of Gloucester, Mass., includes the following passage:

This gray old city by the sea has an individuality as rugged and picturesque as the granite cliffs which hedge its outer harbor. Its existence has been a perpetual struggle in which the courage and the cunning of the man have been pitted against the mighty power of the elements. The town is strong and prosperous now. It is a seat of wealth and culture. But the stranger sailing in from the ocean and catching his first glimpse of the long line of wharves and warehouses, with the trees and roofs and steeples rising behind them, somehow cannot get it out of his fancy that Gloucester is clinging to its rocky hillsides as her sailors cling to their reeling decks.

Seeming to pick up this sentiment more than a century later, “Good Harbor, Home,” written by the poet John Ronan for the 2002 inauguration of Mayor John Bell (while Vincent Ferrini was still the city’s Poet Laureate) begins:

Waves break on outcrop rock: granite,
fire-formed and hard, headland granite -
no coddled cape, no sandbar,
and nothing soft in her city, no knickknack,
Gloucester-by-God, attitude granite.

The 1892 celebratory text continues:

Gloucester, we have said, has a strong individuality. There are many small towns, but no other large city like it on our Atlantic coast. It lives by and from the sea. Its chief industries are such as to nurture manliness. For generations it has been drawing to it bold spirits from all over the world. It is by no chance of blind fortune that Gloucester has added to its fleets and wealth, while the fleets of its competitors have dwindled. Its safe and capacious harbor is one factor in its prosperity; its nearness to great markets another. But something more than that was needed, and it was found in the skill and indomitable perseverance, pluck, and energy of its citizens.

These are what have given Gloucester its supremacy in one of the most arduous and hazardous callings in which men are anywhere engaged.

And here I quote a review of Mark Kurlansky’s book The Last Fish Tale by San Diego-based writer Richard Amero, a 1942 graduate of Gloucester High School, to suggest how the heroic image might persist but evolve when the industries that “nurture manliness” fade:

As in so many towns in the United States, the "Gloucester spirit" had a lot to do with the feats of local high school football, baseball, and basketball players. (In the 1940's it was mainly football.) It was these players who were, for a season at least, the city's heroes. But regardless of whatever was first in public conversation or in newspapers, the fickle and haunting presence of the sea was always in people’s minds, shaping their thoughts and fears and hopes.

Football remains first in the newspaper at least during the fall and in many conversations throughout the year, especially around the corner from me at George’s Coffee Shop. (Briefly, in the autumns of ’06 and ’07, my soccer teams grabbed a share of the press and the chatter by winning the program’s first two conference championships.) My students readily see the link between the idea of Gloucester as presented by Rudyard Kipling in Captains Courageous or by the “Man at the Wheel” statue, on the one hand, and gridiron glory on the other. My students also readily see the gender implications. A heroism of endurance – not action – is shown in the Fishermen’s Wives Memorial by Morgan Faulds Pike dedicated in 2001. And when women display athletic valor during the Fiesta seine boat races, they’re consigned to a second-tier; both the men and the boys are given priority. (A few young women have used the Gloucester Project to propose counter-narratives of female agency in Gloucester beginning with proto-feminist Judith Sargent Murray, author of the 1790 essay “On the Equality of the Sexes”.)

High school students live and interact with many projections of masculine heroism: the aforementioned “Man at the Wheel” statue by Leonard Craske, located along Stacy Boulevard five minutes from the high school; the plaque on Tablet Rock in Stage Fort Park (in foul territory down the leftfield line of Sam Parisi Field where the high school baseball team plays its home games), which reads in part, “On this site in 1623, a company of fishermen and farmers from Dorchester, England, under the direction of Rev. John White, founded THE MASSACHUSETTS BAY COLONY”; a sign at the entrance to the downtown area after one has crossed the A. Piatt Andrew Bridge (which Olson characterized as “a mole/to get at Tyre”) announcing Gloucester as America’s oldest fishing port; in the high school’s nickname, the Fishermen or, informally, the Fighting Fishermen, the ubiquitous logo for which is a simplified version of the “Man at the Wheel”; “greasy pole” winners being carried on the shoulders of fellow competitors through the dense crowds at Pavillion Beach, up Beach Court, and over to the St. Peter’s Club every June during Fiesta; tragic heroism in the 1997 book and 2000 film The Perfect Storm; the 2007 “Gloucester reads Lone Voyager” initiative to get the city to read Joseph Garland’s account of Howard Blackburn’s life, beginning with an account of how he froze his hands to his oars after his dory was separated from its mothership during a snow squall; stories about neighbors, relatives, fathers of friends, fathers of relatives of friends, fathers of friends of friends, etc. Manifestations of heroism abound but what do they mean to a young person forging an identity?

The romantically heroic image (and language) of the city motivated Olson’s imagination, but his insistence on particulars – particular documents, particular memories, and the particular movement of projected utterance in response to a particular occasion – engenders more complex, more challenging depictions of heroism. (A desire to look more closely at Olson and the manly hero led me into a consideration of his childhood summers in Gloucester, his letters with Frances Boldereff, and Charles Stein’s take on the matter in The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum. What I found is too multifaceted to be dealt with sufficiently here; I’ll have to save those notes for another project.) During his summers in Gloucester Olson was physically at the epicenter of several heroic projections. The area around Tablet Rock – which included his family’s summer dwelling, Oceanwood – must have seemed (especially in memory) hallowed ground of the American epic. The plaque commemorating the original farmers and fishermen was affixed to the rock when Olson was twelve. When he was fourteen, the Man at the Wheel appeared on the Boulevard, a short walk away. Later he deepened his engagement through research and his own judgments (“that bad sculpture of a fisherman”). I encourage my students who are proud of Gloucester to avoid received generalities and boosterism – “These are what have given Gloucester its supremacy” – in favor of particulars harvested from their own reading and experience and in favor of a more complex understanding of the place and their relationship to it that makes use of those particulars. To this end students are encouraged to interrogate the characterizations that have come down to them from locals and outsiders alike. Peter Anastas, explicating a portion of Charles Olson’s December 22, 1962 letter to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times in his book Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester, writes, “To Olson, [Winslow] Homer, [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow, and [Rudyard] Kipling were examples of artists and writers who, while having popular ‘international’ reputations, nevertheless sentimentalized Gloucester subjects, thereby depriving them of local specificity and power and, consequently of authenticity.” (Art critic Greg Cook has pointed out to me that it is precisely the lure of the authentic – however constructed – that has drawn most of Gloucester’s significant artists and writers.)

Romanticized constructions of Gloucester’s identity – official, semi-official, and popular – become dangerous when we use them to police what Gloucester is and what it isn’t. While the interlopers Homer, Longfellow, and Kipling may have distorted Gloucester though sentimentality, locals will sometimes distort Gloucester though exclusion. I’ve already mentioned how in the dominant narrative women are permitted a Penelope-like heroism of endurance but not of agency and action. Exclusion, in Gloucester as elsewhere, takes many forms. A friend tells the story of organizing a lunchtime gathering for a colleague moving out of town. When my friend suggested Thai Choice, a favorite downtown lunchtime venue, others dissented saying the restaurant wasn’t “Gloucester” enough – despite the relationships that many of the workers there have developed with patrons over the years. At the high school I heard a couple of students mocking Brazilian-Americans for venerating the Black Madonna during the St. Peter’s Fiesta religious procession, though to the credit of Fiesta organizers the group is included, as are Portuguese groups despite the Sicilian-American origins of the event. (As Olson put it “Gloucester/is heterogeneous, and so can know polis/not as localism, that mu-sick….”) Gloucester’s participation with Dutch Suriname in the triangle trade has been more successfully excluded from the city’s understanding of itself. Though, as my friend David Rich points out, Olson alludes to the trade in the Maximus Poems, most Gloucester citizens are blithely ignorant – as I was until a year ago – that a significant amount of Gloucester’s nineteenth century wealth was gained through an economic enterprise underwritten by slavery.

In the last several paragraphs I’ve taken pains to show that at its best the Gloucester Project pushes students toward discoveries that render preconceptions – and any single narrative – inadequate to characterize or explain the realities they encountered. Even when the gist of a student’s prior conception – Gloucester is a city of heroes, for example – is unchanged by his explorations, the prior understanding is fleshed out, given another dimension. A student has thought, for example, about legendary shipwreck survivor Howard Blackburn, the crew of the We’re Here in Captains Courageous, Olson’s Maximus persona, & contemporary figures (a fishermen/activist, a local football star, a greasy pole champion, etc.) all as related but distinct projections of the heroic masculinity common in depictions of the city. Let me offer another example, one more related to romantic sentimentality than to romantic heroism. A student writing about the experiences of Sicilian-Americans in Gloucester began his project portraying immigrant life as a strife-free, idyllic scene (described to him by his grandmother) of unlocked houses, food sharing, and general neighborliness. He made little mention of the rigors of labor or of clashes between ethnic groups. When a guest speaker complicated the student’s understanding of Gloucester’s downtown neighborhoods in the early and mid-twentieth century by talking about the conditions in fish processing plants and fights between neighborhood and ethnic gangs, the student thought the speaker was guilty of mischaracterization and hyperbole. After some additional research the student revised his stance, but never changed his view that his grandmother was essentially right and that the speaker’s experiences and observations were unrepresentative outliers. However, for his short play set on the Fort, a Sicilian-American neighborhood where Olson rented an apartment at 28 Fort Square, the student created a sympathetic character based on the speaker’s views and other new information. The student’s depiction of the Fort remained romantic at its core – many would say some of Olson’s depictions are romantic too – but at least the play captured some of the complexity of immigrant experiences in twentieth-century Gloucester even if conflicts were confined to the periphery.

Going contrary and singing

Students who’d rather have nothing to do with Gloucester – who already reject heroic depictions of its past and present, who see little of value in their surroundings, who fear being trapped here forever, who are plotting their escape (as I plotted my escape from my hometown), who want to know more about other places, about the world-at-large, about anything else – tend to be annoyed by the project until, as often happens, they discover something of interest hidden beneath the city’s surface or sometimes hiding in plain sight, something they hadn’t heard of before, something that cracks Gloucester open so it stands more revealed or something that opens a portal between Gloucester and the world beyond. Students have researched Maakies cartoonist Tony Millionaire and the rock musician Willie Alexander, both subcultural icons; some have investigated Magnolia’s now gone giant hotel, a thriving playland for the rich, the famous, and the pretenders; a few have immersed themselves in Peter Anastas’ Broken Trip, connected stories about people living with brutality and hope in the margins of Gloucester’s more tourist-friendly narratives; several have looked into Dogtown, a source of inspiration and mystery; etc. Sometimes these discoveries excite a student because they intersect with a pre-existing area of interest (comics, say, or music) or with a student’s experience (a depiction of the socioeconomic reality in his neighborhood or a response to the sexism she’s endured). Sometimes these discoveries explode the static tropes about what Gloucester – or some part of Gloucester – is and isn’t, tropes which exclude many of the students and their experiences and which, therefore, these students resent and reject. The project can help students discover space for their experiences and burgeoning identities.

Though not always successful, the project encourages students to discover that the portion of reality that surrounds them – its present and antecedent existence – matters, something is at stake here in our wards and precincts, in the geography of our being. Fueled by the sense that the polis matters, that it’s not all happening somewhere else, students might persist in their reading, listening, looking, caring, struggling, and resisting; they might continue to find out for themselves, and so oppose the drift Olson observed: “Value is perishing from the earth because no one cares to fight down to it beneath the glowing surface so attractive to all.”

The geography of what we find out we are

The particular Scylla and Charybdis – or Norman’s Woe – of sentimental enthusiasm and foreclosed cynicism are both transformed by “attention and care” – attention and care toward one’s reading, one’s listening, one’s direct observation. In The Secret of the Black Chrysanthemum Charles Stein writes that as a reader Olson “interpolates, quotes, abuses, converses with, corrects, supplies addenda to, ridicules, annotates, or other wise interacts with” the texts he encounters. On Olson as a listener Gerrit Lansing reports “one of Charles’s most common expressions was ‘I hear you’ when the quality of your own articulated attention matched his and the sound was true” (Charles Olson: Maximus to Gloucester); “Later,” Lansing writes, “in the course of frequently walking the streets of Gloucester with Charles, along the bank of the Annisquam River by the high school, paths of Dogtown, I became aware how thorough was the attention he gave to whatever object we stopped to look at.” Olson provides a model for the mindfulness I expect from my students.

An intensely open engagement with objects, language, and people leads on not to mastery but to mystery – “secrets objects share,” as Olson has it in “Projective Verse” – a dwelling within the manifest traum of being:

… to find out for yourself
‘istorin, which makes any one’s acts a finding out for him or her
self, in other words restores the traum: that we act somewhere

at least by seizure, that the objective (example Thucidides, or
the latest finest tape-recorder, or any form of record on the spot

– live television or what – is a lie

as against what we know went on, the dream: the dream being
self-action with Whitehead’s important corollary: that no event

is not penetrated, in intersection or collision with, an eternal
(“A Later Note on Letter #15”)

The pro-Gloucester enthusiasts and anti-Gloucester skeptics among my students need not disavow their predilections or cast away their lenses in order to take another look around, to read widely and interactively in the Gloucester shelf and active storage of the Sawyer Free Library, to get one’s feet on the ground and to put an ear to the ground, to open oneself with bristling attentiveness to imaginative acts of reading and sensing. Olson’s own explorations led him both into sacramental enthusiasm – he writes in a letter to the historian Joseph Garland, “The nature of my involvement in the subject of Gloucester keeps me always in Ward 4 and in Heaven simultaneously” – and into bitter skepticism – he writes in a “Scream” to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, “oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition destroying/its own shoulders its own back greedy present persons/stood upon.…” I hear these tones (and others) jangle in student work, too – work informed by each student’s own forms of finding out.

I tell my students explicitly that Gloucester is not the only ground for such finding out. Wherever they travel, wherever they’ll live, there will be opportunities for exploration of those places too. I often draw their attention to Robin Blaser in Henry Ferrini’s film Polis Is This; Blaser reports that when he told Olson he’d been looking into Gloucester’s history Olson responded, “Oh, don’t do that. This is my place. Go do it for yours.” We might investigate whatever places are ours. Places we’re born in. Places we come to during the summers of our childhood and later live in. Places we move to when we graduate from college, as I did, following my then girlfriend, now wife back to her hometown. Places we’re driven to understand no matter why. I didn’t create the project to inculcate my students with civic pride but rather to give them a chance to find out for themselves and to project an understanding of the geography of their being.