Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Olson's Penny Arcade by Elder Olson

I'm afraid I can't find an image of this book to save my life, which is a shame because that's what attracted me to it in a random library grab. The cover depicts what I believe is supposed to be an old penny movie viewer, where you turn a crank and the photos inside move rather like a flip book.

You don't have to turn a crank to get the poetry inside started, fortunately. All you have to do is turn the page. Inside, you'll find a set of four sections, two that offer a variety of poems, one with a set of themed poems, and another that is a short play in verse.

Mr. Olson says that, "If these poems range from jocosity yo fury and near suicidal despair, that is because they reflect the kind of person I happen to be and the kind of world we happen to live in." I think that's a pretty accurate accounting of the contents, even allowing for the bias of the author. You can't find a particular style in this poems--there's no reliance on nature as theme, or strong use of personal circumstances, or anything that you might expect to find as a signature style.

Instead, what we get, at least in my opinion, is just a clever collection of words to tell a short story or message. Olson doesn't try to make a square peg fit a round hole. He'll write in rhymed verse if that makes sense, but he's not wedded to its use (or its absence). In other cases, there will be structure within a free verse setting. It's a refreshing variety that worked quite well for me.

If you must find a common idea in this collection, I guess it is the idea that the human race has kinda screwed up. It has its moments, but all in all, we seem more likely to do the wrong thing. Olson is a bit of a pessimist, but it doesn't make him write the poetry of the depressed. Instead, he channels his ironic look at life into well-structured form.

Take this poem, "Abdication of the Clown":

"Here, take the old suit
Of spots and rugles,
I've only been wearing it
As pajamas
And somehow lately
I just can't sleep.

Take the hat, too.
It's really only
A duked-up dunce-cap
But it's part of the uniform.
And here's the mask:
Take it, you need it

To give you character.
Go on, get in there
And do what they tell you
And hurry, hurry:
The stands are empty,
Everyone else
Is clowning already.

Don't worry about me.
I'll sit here
Dressed in my skin,
Disguised as myself
And from here on in
I'm only a spectator
Who can't bear to look."

These are the words of a man approaching seventy, who was a child for the first world war, an adult for the second, and a (likely) frustrated older man for Vietnam. He's done with playing the fool, but knows that someone else must take up the mantle. This is a very sad poem, but it's by no means maudlin. You can easily see that Olson is cynical about life, but it doesn't make him express his feelings in a way that reads like whining about it.

There is a similar vibe in other poems, as Olson appears to be reflecting on all kinds of things here in his arcade. "That Nothing is Evidence to Those to Whom it is not Evident" talks about an elephant who refuses to believe in butterflies that dies when someone doesn't believe in him. It's funny, but the point is clear. Who are we to say something cannot be, just because we cannot conceive of it ourselves?

The third section, a short play, makes the characters self-aware of their surroundings. No matter what they wish to do, they've become too attached to their roles, and can neither remove the clothes given to them by stage direction nor even remember their original names (if names they ever had). Despite this self-awareness, the players are still helpless to do anything other than their prescribed roles. I love how Olson created these characters and makes them speak about their use in theatre while also showing that we in life may also be just as trapped in our parts, even if we do know our own names.

Olson's Penny Arcade was a hidden gem for me. I loved the poetry and would definitely read more by him in the future. If you can find a copy of this book, and you like poetry that exposes life for what it is without getting maudlin, I think you'll find it every bit the treat that the original penny arcades were back in the day. I know I did!

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