Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Niche

"Niche" is a pretty cool word, denoting a recessed part of a wall where somebody might put an ornament or a little statue, but also connoting the following, according to the OED online:

4. fig. a. A place or position suited to or intended for the character, capabilities, status, etc., of a person or thing.

How many people feel as if they've found their niche in life? (How many people pronounce the word "nitch," how many pronounce it "neesh," and how many prefer not to use the word at all?) Maybe most people feel or think that they're in a niche but also that the niche doesn't fit them very well, so they settle for an awkward fit. Others may feel or think that they have found a niche, that the fit is good, but then the niche or the person changes, or both change. Because it's ultimately a figurative, indeed metaphysical, concept, "niche" is difficult to discuss with accuracy, unless it's the literal hole in the wall. Humans, like cats, seem to know immediately when the body is in a comfortable position, but the psychic, spiritual, vocational, or professional dimensions of a person's niche are, obviously, more complicated. And even cats--when you move them from one human abode to another, for example--take a long time to adjust themselves, psychically, to the new place. Much pacing, sniffing, and general investigation of the premises are required. In the following poem, a person, not a cat, works to find a niche:

Niche


He viewed himself
as a spectator. A parade
ensued. It invited him.
He marched in it. It
shunted him back, back
to vantage of onlooker, and
further back into an alley.
There he watched the backs
of those watching the parade.
This he found intriguing. The
parade he couldn’t see
no longer interested him. The
backs of heads, sad backs
of coats and trousers, the
necks and ears, scuffed heels—
these fascinated. He looked
behind him. Several persons
stood there, watching him
watch. They invited
him. He declined. He
did not want to join again.
He’d found a niche
between the watchers of
parades and the ones
watching him.

Hans Ostrom Copyright 2007

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