Cary Nelson: On "Often I Am Permitted to a Meadow"

"Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" is the first poem in The Opening of the Field; the reader thus connects the meadow in the poem with the field in the book's title. Field is a broad term referring to various landscapes, to the notion of a perceptual gestalt, and to Olson's idea of composition by field. Does the shift to a meadow signal a more specific landscape? A meadow suggests a single harmonious climate, a space protected by its surroundings. "Opening" a field implies a liberating or pioneering gesture, an entrance or exposure. Returning to a meadow implies the recovery of past intimacy, the restoration of secure resources. The poem's title domesticates the revelatory title of the book. The meadow here is a memory to be inhabited; its emotional connotations are private and delicate. Yet we also wonder if this meadow is the field the book would open.

The poem's title is its first line, effecting a beginning in medias res that conflicts slightly with the line's strong assertion of composed renewal. The word "permitted" is a gesture of humility, undercutting any connotation of will or urgency. Almost without effort, the speaker finds himself in the presence of this meadow. . . .

These first three stanzas complete the sentence started in the title. The meadow now seems almost an imaginary hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden protected from the outside world. The setting is so "made-up," so constructed, fictional, that its otherness shows little congruence with the imagination that gave it life. Yet intimacy and otherness are inextricably part of the same texture; in the poem they echo within the same shell of sound. The partial rhyme of "mind" and "mine" reinforces the meadow's ambiguities. "Made-up" and "made place," the first implying artifice, the second solid construction, are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Similarly, "that is not mine" and "that is mine" appear to be opposite, yet visually and aurally they are mutual reverberations, alternatives reflecting one another. The very composure and perfection of this made place lend it a sense of difference, of exclusive containment. But this meadow is also the place where we always are, the mind's ground and the setting for its development. It is "so near to the heart," this otherness that constitutes the self."

The word "pasture" broadens the "meadow" of the first line. The pasture is eternal because it is so thoroughly "made-up" as to last forever and because it acquires an impersonality and universality linking it to every other "made place." It is a place, not just a thing, because its isolation is confirmed by our being there. Enfolding the pasture in the medium of thought makes it a place with "a hall therein," with an entrance and a means of passage. The pasture is the field where the mind feeds on its own substance--the human body, but the body both specific and general. Like Duncan's image of the body of primitive man, it is without preconceived outline and conscious in all of its parts. This makes the mind's energy visible, "as if it were the mind itself / which descends in the poem / and becomes manifest" (FD, 86), while also "encumbering in its concretion and weight the longing for ecstatic flight the soul knows" (C,62).

As we finish the opening stanzas, we sense an uneasiness that also hints of freedom. If forms are mere shadows, they have no special permanence. Yet Duncan will later write of "the ascendancy of the shadow / in the blossoming mass" (RB, 169), so even a transient form gives satisfaction in completed structure. Nonetheless, the structure here is also a dissolution:

 

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am

I say are likenesses of the First Beloved

whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady

 

She it is Queen Under the Hill

whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words

that is a field folded.

 

These next two stanzas present a conventional invocation to the muses, a gesture appropriate to the book's first poem." Again, however, the architectures "fall," and we can read this falling as a loss of variety and innocence, as well as a falling into place, as forms find their necessary order. The tone of these stanzas recalls medieval hymns to the lady and courtly love poems, but that decorous surface masks a more unsettling communication--that the poem's formal imperatives, its ordering structures, are really "likenesses" of a much wider set of verbalizations. This suggests that the poem's progress is determined by connections inscribed in the words themselves. A "disturbance of words within words," the poem is a ritual performed in the Lady's honor and in her service--"she," Duncan writes later, whose breast is in language, who "sends her own priestesses of the Boundless to these councils of our boundaries" (T, 19). A "disturbance" is any reorganization along fresh lines of association. The "field folded" is an archetype of poetic form: a field of associations doubling back on themselves to create a formal gestalt. Only within that limited frame can we glimpse "the Hosts of the Word that attend our words" (T, 19).

The result is a fiction, a dream momentarily resisting the larger pressures of the language. . . .

The dream works its changes among the grasses at the surface of the field of meanings. It troubles the depths briefly, sounding rhythms that set the poem's pace and establish its configuring image sequences. Despite its apparent originality, the poem is a variation on a codified ritual, like a children's game. The secret of this children's game is the belief (the historical truth of which is irrelevant to Duncan's purpose) that the rhyme dates back to the bubonic plague, when flowers were carried to ward off the odor of decay. Elsewhere Duncan describes poetry as an infection of meaning, a disease erupting in the body of language: "The ear / catches rime like pangs of disease from the air," he writes, "For poetry / is a contagion" (BB, 32).

With their decorous rhetoric, the last stanzas further the same notions:

 

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow

as if it were a given property of the mind

that certain bounds hold against chaos,

 

that is a place of first permission,

everlasting omen of what is.

 

The title is repeated and the poem brought round to its origin. But the formal resolution (like the end of the children's game) will also be a falling down. Returning to the beginning suggests that the several stanzas were only the circular unfolding of the first line, a disturbance within its words. The poem is like a first field on which we ventured forth, at once an origin and an initiation. Every return brings unexpected changes: "We must come back and back to the same place and find it subtly altered each time, like a traveler bewitched by lords of the fairy, until he is filled with a presence he would not otherwise have admitted." The poem's field is "where the disturbance is, where the words / awaken" (RB,51 ) unpredicted changes. It appears to hold a boundary "against chaos," yet "the sound of words waits-- / a barbarian host at the borderline of sense" (FD, 135). The poem is a "place of first permission" where a universe of words is given one of its voices. Poetic speech has the tension "of the ominous, for a world that would speak is itself a language of omens." So this meadow, giving illusory bounds to infinite speech, becomes an "everlasting omen of what is."

"What is," the governing ground of reality, is for Duncan essentially a reservoir of potential interchanges: "In a field of interacting melodies a single note may belong to both ascending and descending figures, and, yet again, to a sustaining chord or discord." The poem creates its own field within the larger field of words by establishing lines of force between specific harmonies and disharmonies. These "are rimes, Sounding in each other" and "the rimes or reoccurrences are knots in the web or tissue of reality." "That one image may recall another," Duncan writes, "finding depth in the resounding, is the secret of rime and measure. The time of a poem is felt as a recognition of return in vowel tone and in consonant formations, of pattern in the sequence of syllables, in stress and in pitch of a melody, of images and meanings." "Rime" for Duncan covers interactions among both sounds and images, as well as interactions between them.

In "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," this net of sound and meaning keeps the meadow image coherent despite the associative digressions. The images of the Queen or Lady and the stanzas about the children's game would disrupt the poem if its verbal ground were not strong enough to support them. The poem's aural design is exactly sufficient, managing simultaneously to sustain and threaten. It includes the antiphonal phrasing of the second line and the first phrase of the third, the assonance of "made place," the consonance of "heart" and "thought" and later of "field folded," the visual rhyme of "near" and "heart," the repetition of "there" with "therein" in the fifth line, the internal rhyme of "all" and "hall" in the second stanza, echoed by "fall" in the third and "fall all" in the fourth. Throughout, there is considerable alliteration. Duncan does not establish a strict sound pattern but employs a variety of devices to make the aural field freely associative and unpredictable. Sound and meaning become mutually supportive, while seeming outside the poet's full control. Sound could, we fear, make the poetry nonsensical. Yet there is considerable attraction in the supreme and empty meaning lodged in the random architecture of sounds:

 

        rhymes that mimic much of loss,         ghost goings,

 

                        words lost in passing,         echoed

 

        where they fall,          againnesses of sound only

 

        This failure of sense is melody most

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Cary Nelson: On "Often I Am Permitted to a Meadow" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cary Nelson Criticism Target Robert Duncan
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 16 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry
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