James Fenton, ‘Wind’

Here’s a link to the text and the poet’s reading of James Fenton’s superb short poem ‘Wind’ on the Poetry Archive: https://poetryarchive.org/poem/wind/

It’s a poem that brings tears to my eyes when I read it. Paradoxically, I think it does so at least partly by the serene beauty of its composition and the lightness with which it touches its matter. This lightness is reflected in the poet’s reading, which is thoughtful and tinged with sadness but never heavily emotive.

Despite its being so short, I would call it a great poem. Its point of view, its subject matter, is epic, dealing with the movement of peoples, with sweeps of space and time and processes of cultural change as vast as those in Saint-John Perse’s Anabase. It’s able suggest these things so briefly and with such elegantly uncluttered swiftness because of what is at one level its extreme abstraction, the god’s eye overview it presents. BUT – and this is crucial – all through the poem this god’s eye view is held in tension and made to interact with a humanly immersed one. It starts with the startling leap between perspectives in the first two lines, the close-up, immersive one immediately followed by the long shot –

This is the wind, the wind in a field of corn.
Great crowds are fleeing from a major disaster

The humanly immersed way of thinking and feeling is kept alive by little touches throughout the poem. For example, ‘green swaying wadis’ miraculously combines the vivid, immediate impression of the wind blowing through green corn with a god’s eye or epic cinema view looking down over migrating crowds and herds through valleys. So much is going on in the phrase. Evoking the Middle East by means of the Arabic word ‘wadis’, the phrase may make us think of Cecil B. DeMille’s fifties epic of the Jews’ flight from Egypt as well as of modern wars and famines. ‘Swaying’ most vividly evokes the way corn bends to and fro under a changing wind but also suggests the tottering of exhausted refugees and the swaying of camels’ burdens. And I’m reminded of Tennyson’s evocation of geological change in In Memoriam 123:

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds they shape themselves and go.

So perhaps it was misleading to talk about abstraction. Such breadth of reference, seeming to transcend all limitations of time, might normally come at the cost of abstraction but here it’s brilliantly combined with concrete immediacy.

I can’t make up my mind whether ‘Down through the beautiful catastrophe of wind’ or the final stanza seems more heartbreakingly lovely. In both cases, the beauty and the heartbreak depend on the way such different perspectives tug at the same words. But the final stanza has the special weight of the way it gathers things together and resolves the whole. The sudden move into distance of ‘And somewhere they will sing: ‘Like chaff we were borne / In the wind’ – made more decisive by the preceding full stop – brings things to rest on the remote perspective, detaches us, as it were, from contemplating disaster in an immediate way. ‘Sing’ suggests the surmounting of horror by turning it into art. ‘Like chaff we were borne / In the wind’ has an Authorized Version Biblical resonance. But most beautiful and intangible is the way the tonal and emotional weight of ‘This is the wind in a field of corn’ has been transformed by everything that’s come between the poem’s opening and its close.

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