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On "Paean to Place"


Jane Augustine

In "Paean to Place" from "My Life by Water," included in Cid Corman’s memoir in Chicago Review #88 (1973), the sense that "I am what is around me"—a line from Wallace Stevens—is conveyed through images of water and waterside which are multiplied and overlaid to reflect, as she has said a "state of consciousness:

I was the solitary plover
a pencil
        for a wingbone
From the secret notes
I must tilt

upon the pressure
execute and adjust
        in us sea-air rhythm

‘We live by the urgent wave
of the verse’

Here the literal description of her childhood "wading through weeds" is transmuted, as she grows up as artist as well, to the image of the plover which becomes, by the process of "reflection," the poet who keeps the world's balance, the lake's image shifting to that of seashore and ocean wave, the landscape thereby enlarged to include the entire globe; the plover is a bird found everywhere on earth, inland and by the shores. This conception of the poet as balancer through the use of reflective imagination is further expanded and embodied in "Wintergreen Ridge," published in Caterpillar 3/4 (Apr-July 1968). In this lovely meditative poem, employing the stanzaic form of William Carlos Williams' "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"—also a long meditation—Niedecker's consciousness also blooms. Not unlike Williams' consciousness as he contemplates the asphodel—though not like him in farewell or apologia—Niedecker's mind travels widely in a great circle from signs to rocks through thoughts on the twin forces of natural evolution and human destructiveness (the bomb is also mentioned in "Asphodel") to the mythic names of wildflowers and back home again, but along strange by-ways.

The basis is clear and directly presented: the poet and her husband are climbing the limestone cliffs near the sea which are Wintergreen Ridge, having been led there by the road-sign arrows, those metaphors for the natural direction one's life must take. The rock's hardness suggests to her that "Man / lives hard / on this stone perch," the earth, not just this ridge, and this precariousness makes him "imagine / durable works / in creation here"—art, poetry. Thinking more on transience because of the out-of-style skirt she is wearing, she is led to reflect on her longing to travel everywhere: to Norway, England, Crete, and to see "every creature / better alive / than dead." She speaks of the two of them as "gawks / lusting / after wild orchids."

A sign warning them not to pick the flowers suggests to her how flowers are saved: by evolution which has saved species (Darwin is the subject of another of her long poems of this period): "continuous life / through change." But Wintergreen Riddge was saved by brave human action, by "women / of good wild stock" who "stood stolid / . . . stopped bulldozers / cold / We Want it for all time / they said / and here it is."

Niedecker catalogs lovingly the wildflowers and plants, including the sundew, which eats insects, and the lady's-slipper which tricks the bee into its pollinating activity, natural ways matter is coaxed into evolving. She comments: "Women saved / a pretty thing: Truth." This truth, "good to the heart," is that the whole world is our finite parent, an insight also stressed by buddhists, and as in buddhist scriptures and practice recalled to each of us by the concrete memory of our own mother's goodness of heart. In Niedecker's reflections she hears again her mother's cry upon discovering gentians in a wood: "how she loved / closed gentians / she herself so closed." This memory sinks into a deeper one, more hinted at than described, of a love which stabbed her "close to the heart," and the resolution of her grief, as time passed, with work in solitude: "Nobody nothing / ever gave me / greater thing / than time / unless light / and silence / which if intense / makes sound." As reflection in mirrors literally intensifies light, so analogously silence when intensified is forced into brilliance, sound—poetry, the intensity in herself which she also implicitly compares also to the processes of tiny lichens which "grind with their acid / granite to sand" and may thereby survive the nuclear holocaust, as poetry manages to survive. As she walks among pipsissewa and grass-of-parnassus, she comes to waterlilies, the emblem of her whose life is by water: "Scent / the simple / the perfect / order of that flower / water lily," an order which is preeminent in her mind over the then-popular images of supposed mind-expansion, the space rocket and the acid trip, which she does not find at, Wintergreen Ridge.

Leaving the ridge and driving back "to cities," she notices the "change in church architecture," not an aleatory observation but the basic datum established in good imagist-objectivist style and opening again into reflection in the contemplative, not literal-mirror sense. The ugly distortion of the "black dinosaur-necked / blower-beaked / smokestack- / steeple" (the language itself almost a parody of mystical Hopkins) is overlaid by the suggestion that church religion itself is a "dinosaur," that species which earlier in the poem was described as having died while the humble weeds,—horsetails, club mosses—remained living, the exemplars of the humble "pretty thing: Truth" which women saved, the facts of actual existence, not grand ideas about existence.

from "The Evolution of Matter: Lorine Niedecker's Aesthetic." Sagetrieb Vol. 1 (1982), No. 1: 277-284.


Robert Bertholf (1985)

[Bertholf’s review of From This Condensery, a collected poems, offers additional biographical information and explains the literary relationship between Niedecker and Louis Zukofsky that unfolded through an extended correspondence. Niedecker wrote several sequences to Zukofsky’s son Paul, beginning in 1950. Bertholf considers her work, then, in light of the aesthetics of writers like Zukofsky whose free verse self-consciously made use of the placement and spacing on the page.]

Niedecker‘s use of sequences reaches its apex in "Wintergreen Ridge" and "Paean to Place." "Wintergreen Ridge" employs a three-line stanza and short lines with a margin at the left and two internal margins. The lines move away from the left to the right, and in the hesitation between stopping and not stopping at the end of the lines focus sharp attention on individual lines, even while the movement of the poem is linear, back to the left, and forward to the next stanza. Sentences stretch across stanzas, enlarging the possibilities of statement, in the same way that the full-sentence line in a Miltonic sonnet increases the syntactic possibilities of the Shakespearean sonnet. …

In "Paean to Place" the three-margin form is integrated into larger stanzas which allow more melodic variations. In these poems the stanza, and in most cases, the sentence as instituted in the stanza, is the unit of expression. Configuration, line breaks, spaces, and internal margins preclude the need for punctuation, and the internal validity of the poetics within the occasion of the poem sustains the form. Features are clear enough in the following section …

[Bertholf quotes from a line that begins "On this stream" to "on the edge"]

No longer separate poems on separate subjects, now the stanzas move forward in a syncretistic way, adding sense toward the whole statement without demanding a structural conclusion. This realization of form, which pushes outward away from the left margin as it moves linearly, was Niedecker’s grand achievement as a poet. The achievement was prepared for by a lifetime of writing poems in sequences.

From Robert Bertholf, "Lorine Niedecker: Portrait of a Poet," Parnassus 12:2/13:1 (1985), 232-234.


Donald Davie (1987)

Before the end Niedecker found a solution of sorts to the problem of how to build her little poems into larger structures. The solution was, not surprisingly, the sequence. One such sequence, "Lake Superior," has been applauded by others beside me as a celebration of the geography and history of her own part of America, just south of the Great Lakes; it is, in its forbidding way, perfect. Others – "Thomas Jefferson," "His Carpets Flowered" (about William Morris)," and "Darwin" – suffer from being, or seeming to be, marginalia to the prose biographies that were her sources. There remain "Wintergreen Ridge" and "Paean to Place." Both are illuminating and memorable. …

In "Paean to Place," the style is not significantly different [from "Wintergreen Ridge"], though a five-line stanza (often quite richly rhymed) gives her and her reader more very welcome elbow room, and this seems to have enabled her to persist in suppressing punctuation, but without becoming cryptic. (A properly respectful annotator could help, but his task wouldn’t be onerous.) Its more than two hundred lines hang together so naturally and closely that one quotes them all, or none at all. This is Niedecker’s masterpiece, and should become a modern classic. The author of "Paean to Place" can be mentioned in the same breath as Dickinson.

From Donald Davie, "Niedecker," Parnassus 14:1 (1987), 207-207.


Marjorie Perloff (1990)

…How good, after all, do the men have it? In one of her late sequences, "Paean to Place," Niedecker imaginatively re-creates her father’s state of mind in the long years of her mother’s illness:

[Perloff cites lines beginning "Anchored here" and ending "of her hair"]

Like the poet, who must "log - in the cupboard, head / in closet," her father is imaged as "anchored," "Roped … in the loop / of [his wife’s] hair," the rope metaphor suggesting that one’s noose is the product, not of external force, but of love itself – in this case, the sexual loop of a woman’s hair, a loop all the more mysterious in that it remains outside the man who sits "beside his shoes."

from Marjorie Perloff, "Canon and Loaded Gun," in Poetic License: Essays on the Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (Evanston: Northwestern U P, 1990), 50-51.


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