Tuesday, May 02, 2006

"Standing in the Field"

By Muriel Spark

That scarecrow standing in the field
is dress-designed as if to move
all passers-by to tears
of sorrow for his turnip face,
his battered hat, his open arms
flapping in someone else’s shirt,
his rigid, orthopedic sticks
astride someone else’s jeans,
one leg of which is short, one long.
He stands alone, he stands alone.


Two weeks ago, on April 13, at the age of 88, in Florence, Italy, Dame Muriel Spark, whom I consider one of the greatest modern English/Scottish writers, passed away. She is more well-known for her novels, such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, than for her poems. Standing in the Field is taken from All the Poems of Muriel Spark, out in May 1 in the UK on Carcanet paperback.

In this poem someone is a distance away, observing a scarecrow in a field. “dress-designed” would have one anticipate the clothes on the scarecrow to be fashionable. But later along in the poem we find he does have on something somewhat fashionable, like a pair of jeans. But they have unequal lengths. We then see why that is so.

The second line also has us tricked initially into interpreting move as physical movement, (such as a dance or a jig, perhaps?). The cutting of the line at move foregrounds this word into a powerful run-on to “all passers-by”. So move here can have undercurrents of emotion and motion, to contrast against stationary stance.

For birds the scarecrow is meant to be scary, to frighten them away from the crops in the field, but for us we should cry with tears of laughter for the funny “turnip face”. But the cutting of the third line at tears, another powerful run-on, has the extension to it as “of sorrow”.

“battered hat” might not be as innocuous as they sound, as are “his open arms”. They can connote defenselessness against violence. “flapping”, in the line after, has this movement contrast sheer with the stiffness in “rigid, orthopedic sticks”, and this compounds the sadness of someone with no legs. His “dress-designed” clothes – shirt and jeans - are not even his own possessions but “someone else’s”, the repetition of which drives home the wretchedness of such poverty or dispossession.

All the lines have been written in a strict regular 4-beat rhythm. There are a few beat or stress promotions of unstressed words, in the first couple of lines. Line 3 has only 3 beats, but you could place a silent or virtual beat at the end, to effect a pause, like a gulping. And this would make the run-on here even more prominent or effecting.

The only slight variations in the rising tone – or iambic metre, for old-school stylists - are in the two lines describing “someone else’s shirt” and “someone else’s jeans”. They have tone or beat/stress inversions. In “flapping in someone else’s shirt” , the first pair of syllables are inverted, from fall-rise to rise-fall. When you quicken the reading of the non-stresses in “flapping in”, the effect here is one of sharp and quick movements. “astride someone else’s jeans” has the second pair of syllables inverted. The length of time to read the stresses in “astride someone” makes for a stretching effect (of legs widening apart?).

The last line has the narrator seeing, finally, that the fashionable but crippled object afar, stock-still in the field, is all so profoundly by himself. The echoing of “He stands alone” brings home to us poignantly how small and alone he is within the wide stretch of the field.

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15 Comments:

Blogger madcap machinist said...

The only slight variations in the rising tone – or iambic metre, for old-school stylists - are in the two lines describing “someone else’s shirt” and “someone else’s jeans”. They have tone or beat/stress inversions.

Hi Leon, can you illustrate for us what you mean by that...


his BATtered HAT, his OPen ARMS
FLAPping in SOMEone ELSe’s SHIRT,
his RIgid, ORthoPEdic STICKS
astRIDE SOMEone ELSe’s JEANS,


... is that how we would sense the beats? At least, that's how I'm reading it.

I'm curious how the commas, and how we naturally pause when we encounter them, contributes to the poem in this situation.

4:21 PM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

loved this leon. so glad you chose a poem by muriel spark. i'm looking forward to buying this collection of poems. coming back to add more later but rushing at the moment ...

4:29 PM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Machinist, you got ALL the beats/metre absolutely spot-on. That's great! You are sensing and reading those lines correctly.

In that stanza the commas fall naturally at the end of the lines. So these line are complete as syntactic units.

For the lines ending with "arms" and "sticks", the syntactic units are broken and incomplete, until you continue reading, without pause, down towards the next lines.

The run-on lines here make one sit up and notice the details at the end of a line and at the start of the next.

Glad you notice the comma-endings, too: you'll note that you tend to naturally pause, so that "shirt" and "jeans" can also take on emphasis.

6:10 PM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger Han said...

Is there a connection between standing alone and the used clothing?

"He stands alone, he stands alone" stress the isolation of the scarecrow, and becomes a wail. The used clothing is evidence of life. It is not the absence of it.

I like the use of "move" which belongs to the passers-by but seems to animate the scarecrow.

Turnip be a word play on "turned-up", thus a soured face?

Just discovered this blog via mywordup. I'll be stopping by more often.

11:13 PM, May 02, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Han, I guess I can see your point about the used clothing being evidence of life, however I am less inclined to think so; perhaps, because the scarecrow is often a mock figure, a kind of cariture of a real human being.

At the same time, your point also touched on the speaker's 'animation' and humanising of the scarecrow, though a figure at which people vent their anger or hurl insults, is also one to which lonely people (presumably farmers) share and transfer their sorrows and own sense of forlorn-ness.

Leon, this is really lovely...I thoroughly enjoyed how you bring all the intricacies of this poem to life (just as the poet has done with the scarecrow, Sparks would surely feel a sense of pride here). Loking forward to more, though this leaves me with a very tough act to follow. :)
PS. Sorry, I can't make to KL this coming Sunday, but I promise we will meet some time this year.

11:35 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

oops, misspelt 'caricature'.

Han, looking forward to your comments in the coming weeks.

11:36 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

I really enjoyed this poem, so compact yet so carefully crafted.

Scarecrows are something we have a lot of in the UK but I haven't seen them here. They serve a practical fuction, yet once you dress some sticks up in old clothes, something that is almost a parody of a human being is created ... and can even be quite eerie (just look at the number of horror films with scarecrows that come to life!). They aren't alive ... we know that with our logical brain ... and yet we anthropomorphasize (treat as if a human being) ...

The poem is a little vignette of something glimpsed in passing, a corner of the world captured like a snapshot. The poet says that to see the scarecrow is to be moved to pity. Well, to read her words to be made to care ... which is quite a triumph when you think that we are made to feel this for something not alive.

Like Frankenstein's monster, the scarecrow is constructed from bits and pieces from here and there, unwanted odds and ends. He has the ugliest of faces (a turnip!) and his body is just rigid sticks. No-one cared while they were making him. The repetition in the final lines emphasises the pathos even more. He was never loved.

One wonders if the poet was transfering her own feelings ... wonder when and how the poem was written.

The poem is a joy to read aloud - Leon and the Machinist have done a great job of analysing the use of rhythm and run-on lines which make the poem so mouth-friendly. Am inspired!

11:45 AM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger Han said...

Rereading Leon's analysis, I detected the theme of loss of ownership.

The first word of the poem being "That", I felt it made the tone anecdotal.

The structure of the poem is a recursion. "Dress-designed" refers to "turnip face, battered hat, his open arms..." The speaker looks at the scarecrow, disdainful, "as if to move all passersby". He looks again and it deepens and breaks. We see the articles of clothing.

I think Leon nails it when he talks about the clothes. When the speaker looks, he sees a lifetime; empty gestures -- "flapping", emotional violence -- "battered hat". He can no longer justify the "tears of sorrow", a false shedding. He sees a representation of his own life.

What he sees is an echo.

11:31 PM, May 03, 2006  
Blogger Leon Wing said...

Han, you're right about the loss of ownership. There is nothing of the scarecrow that is his - the shirt, the jeans, the face - not even his legs, they're just some orthopedic sticks.

And, there are instances of recursions - or echoes - in some places in the poem, so that these kind of echoings underpin some points the poet wants to make. Like the repeating of "someone else's" and the last bit of echoing.

Is there any disdain in the speaker's attitude? what do other people see, I wonder? Perhaps the speaker might be ready to laugh at the funny turnip face but is balked by the awful state of the scarecrow, that in the end she is moved to sorrow.

I'm not sure about the "empty gestures". I'm sure that Dame Muriel had a hard life when she was young. And she had seen a lot of life, in Scotland and in Africa. The poems was written in 1994, and I don't know if she was in Africa, Scotland or in Italy then. Or she might have been writing about what she saw in Africa?

9:53 AM, May 04, 2006  
Blogger Han said...

Leon, I haven't read much of Muriel Spark's prose, so I don't have a point of reference. Whether or not it was Africa or Scotland that inspired this poem; this discussion definitely gives me an incentive to start.

"empty gestures" represents pompous character. Its inclusion in the poem means the speaker is sick of people who display it.

I felt the poem moved from false feeling to genuine feeling. "That scarecrow standing in the field" is a kissing cousin to "he thinks he's all that".

I didn't realise it, but I was building off what Dreamer Idiot mentioned about scarecrows and caricature. The poem could be interpreted as claiming a caricature. (Thanks Dreamer!)

Another thing I didn't touch on was Leon's original assertion of the undercurrents of emotion and motion. The opening lines can be read as if the scarecrow fuels the passers-by. Calling to mind a tragic hero. iz

11:47 AM, May 04, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

i'd say it reflects a v. british landscape

disdain? perhaps but for sure converted quickly into pity

2:12 PM, May 04, 2006  
Blogger madcap machinist said...

Oh Sharon, I didn't do anything. Just picked up where Leon left off.

Whenever I think of scarecrows I think of the one in Wizard of Oz. Then, more recently, the one in the horror flick Jeepers Creepers 2, which turned out to be a flesh eating monster.

Needless to say, I really have no idea what it is really like to see a real scarecrow in a field and to translate that to poetry in contemplation.

There are some, of course, seen in the padi fields in the North where I come from. But they are wretched things: simple bamboo crosses with coconut husks driven through a sharpened end at the top for a head; tattered clothing, no pants usually, stickmen have no need for modesty; a straw hat with a bright ribbon around it. Some scarecrows are given gloves, and mostly have ribbons flying at the end of their stick arms for some movement.

I still see birds everywhere, but hey, this is Malaysia. :-)

I'm enjoying this discussion, finding the theme of poverty -- both in material possessions and soul, and the sorrow one feels when confronted such a caricature of a deprived being -- in a lonely scarecrow.

Why would any passer-by be moved to tears looking at a scarecrow? In my opinion, that is the thrust of this poem.

For any of us to see beyond an effigy to find a reflection (echo?) of a sorry state of humanity? Yes Sharon, I agree, it is quite a triumph.

Dame Muriel Spark certainly saw it, and has shown us her insight.

It's a fine tribute to her.

6:16 PM, May 04, 2006  
Blogger Han said...

Bibliobibuli,

I see the English landscape. The scarecrow standing in a field of crops. Downs to the right and left.

Not only is disdain turned to pity, I argue the speaker starts looking at the scarecrow and ends up looking inwards.

I guess I'm also arguing that the echo at the end of the poem twins the speaker and the scarecrow.

4:12 PM, May 05, 2006  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

could well be, han ... certainly the speaker understands the loneliness of the scarecrow ...

8:14 AM, May 09, 2006  
Blogger Simon said...

I may be jumping to conclusions here, but the imagery is redolent of the crucifixion of Jesus and this is for me the key to why passers by should be moved to tears. It is not, in fact, the material tragedy of the sacrifice of designer clothes to a cruel Nature, but something deeper. The scarecrow (Jesus) has open arms (to welcome the passers by) -but "He stands alone, he stands alone".

3:13 PM, April 27, 2007  

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