Tuesday, April 25, 2017

work on the drying ground

The most atypical poem in Wingfield's Selected Poems 1938 – 1983 is possibly this one, When Moore Field Was All Grazed:
When Moore field was all grazed
And Finnesburie ploughed
People were fiery, clever, glum or crazed;
Hard knuckled; and proud
Liars; and well-phrased.
The other poems in the book prefer to resolve their evocations with an aphorism, a lesson, or a short passage of reflection, but Moore Field feels no need. Not Forgetting Aeneas Sylvius, for example, ends by calling everything that has happened so far
… a reminder
Of how short is triumph,
How it never condescends.
And in The Heart That Leapt the poet finishes her description of the leaping heart by calling it a
Shame that it should
Be stilled from beating in eternity
While the narrator in Waking concludes her thoughts about Lazarus by deciding
I must, like him, with all force possible
Try out my tongue again.
Heart was published in 1938 and Waking in 1977, Moore Field between them in 1964; there is not a period when she systematically abandons or changes her habits in the direction that Moore Field suggests. Developments in poetry elsewhere don't seem to have affected her, a point that G.S. Fraser discusses in the introduction, saying that she was "quite outside the literary world." Ann Roper reviewing Penny Perrick's 2007 biography of Wingfield in The Independent, wrote: "succumbing to fear was largely the reason for her obscurity as a writer … it was fear that isolated her, that kept her from entering the very literary world she craved."

She loved her father over her mother; the same father forbade her reading and prevented her from attending university. After that, every criticism seems to have made her retract.

Moore Field looks as if it was written during a spasm of agitation that, in the end, must have seemed complete in itself, without inspirational lines at the end to confirm that the poet was thoughtful. She would have looked back over the work "in tranquillity" before it was included in the short book that would later be incorporated into the Selected, and still she kept it. When I read the rest of the compendium it is not the evidence of the agitation that seems amazing but the imaginative picture of her making a decision that contradicts the ones she made for other poems.

Every time she approved of Moore Field she was a different person to the one who liked The Heart That Leapt. Now she is a little closer to the characters in Knut Hamsun, the ones who speak as if they need to keep their ideas oblique and cryptic as if under pressure from an invisible threat. "[I]ndeed, she repressed everything that didn’t accord with her strange, self-enclosed vision of the world," said another reviewer of the Perrick biography. "Unpleasant, self-serving, snobbish, cold, hypocritical, deceitful, appalling to her children ..."

But at the same time the Hamsun characters want you to acknowledge that these feelings are intense. They need other people to understand the subterranea of their thoughts without comprehending the thoughts themselves.

My feelings towards Moore Field are something like the ones I have toward this paragraph from Hamsun's Rosa, 1909, tr. Sverre Lyngstad

It rained for two days and two nights, the fish were stacked and covered with birch bark. There was no work on the drying ground at the moment and the weather was somber and unpleasant; but fields and meadows shot up, grew thick and swayed in the wind.

I find the recalcitrance in them both very satisfying.

(In Hamsun it is the refusal to let you say the weather is bad.)


  1. Wingfield must've seen that she'd found something in that poem, to keep it with the others. It's a very stubborn poem, a refusal to outright say the farmers were all drunk. "well-phrased" is great. I know those drunks.

    1. I was thinking about it again this morning and the words, "anarchic levelling" came to mind. In most of her work she establishes a hierarchy of emotions, with the kind of passionate responsiveness she describes in the Heart poem at the top. (The heart reacts sublimely to the sudden sound of clapping pigeon wings and to a boat that "heeled, trembling, to the sea" and other things.) In Moore Field, however, all of the emotions are outside hierarchy. There's no suggestion that a glum person is having a less important emotion than a crazed one.

      But you could argue that this is a sign of disregard from the poet: perhaps the people she was describing seemed so little to her that it didn't matter what form their emotions took.

      Then it occurs to me thatfiery, clever, glum, crazed, proud, a liar were the kinds of words the reviewers of the Wingfield biography used when they were trying to tell you what she was like.

  2. "[I]ndeed, she repressed everything that didn’t accord with her strange, self-enclosed vision of the world," said another reviewer of the Perrick biography. "Unpleasant, self-serving, snobbish, cold, hypocritical, deceitful, appalling to her children ..."

    Just like Tolstoy, or any number of artists. The first comment is pretty funny, as if there exists some other kind of worldview.

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    2. One of the reviewers suggests cruelly that she could have solved a number of her problems by going down the pub and hanging out with the boys on the weekend.

      Unhappiness seems to have been an impetus behind a lot of her writing (she asks for worthiness and reflects longingly on peace and calm) but it leaves her stuck, too; she wants wisdom but never seems to be investigating ways that she might find it without someone else bestowing it on her. Which sets her apart from Tolstoy, who, at least, seemed to be looking around for a solution. I think my next post is going to be about that.