While there is no convenient or accepted name for such a structure, it essentially forms a ‘field of space’, whose various parts trickle, seep, spill or surge to some degree into their neighbours. Adjacent zones intermingle, rather than stay immune to each other. Ultimately, the most crucial property of this structure is not a matter of form or space, but energy – the intensely charged field of action it offers to us, the wealth and propensity of its open futures, its chances to exercise our free will as we take off and infiltrate its space.
The underlying human potential of this field of action was first articulated by poets concerned with finding a way to overcome the predetermined stanzic structure and fixed stresses of traditional poetry, empowering the reader to become a more vital creative force. In a lecture at the University of Washington in 1948, William Carlos Williams described his poetry as an effort to construct a ‘field of action’, whose arrangement and spacing of words was shaped deliberately to activate the reader and encourage the avoidance of falling back into passivity or habit.114 In breaking down the stiff and predictable flow of earlier poetry, and in the process abandoning the narrative continuity imposed on a reader, Williams, along with like-minded poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Hilda Doolittle and Charles Olson, created units of words that were non-sequential and spatially charged. ‘Poetry returns authority to man,’ he writes, as the reader is now stimulated to move around the page and take control by seizing words from several different vantage points.
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Equally central to the notion of a field is its universe of possibilities for many people to perform deeds that make a difference and where, conversely, as Wallace Stevens describes, ‘hundreds of eyes, in one mind, see at once’.115 But it was Williams who grew especially persuasive about this polyphony. ‘We seek profusion’, he notes in his essay ‘Poetry as a Field of Action’, ‘heterogeneous – ill-assorted – quite breathless – grasping at all kinds of things – as if – like Audubon shooting some little bird, really only to look at it better … It is as though for the moment we should be profuse … we need to build up a mass, a conglomerate maybe, containing few gems but bits of them – Brazilian brilliants -that shine of themselves … We must see our opportunity and increase the hoard others will find to use. We must find our pride in that. We must have the pride, the humility and the thrill in the making.’116
To help envision a field of action, it may be useful to first consider its appearance in the fictitious space of painting, whose images entice us to penetrate their scenes. The great charm of the landscapes of Northern Renaissance art, for instance, is the way in which their porously complex terrain and buildings, abundant with beguiling features and mysteries we can peer into, draw us into a visual adventure where multiple layers of space never end but shade into others as they recede. Crucial to our participation in these panoramas of contrasting yet interlocked events is that they are not predestined to be followed in any given order, but can be visually probed according to whatever sequence we wish at that moment.
The endless surprise and overwhelming variety of space in the work of Hans Memling are made accessible to the eye by pervious volumes piled up in depth and leaking into one another. Buildings in paintings such as Scenes from the Passion of Christ (p. 210) have some fagades peeled away or hollowed out by oversized windows and arcades, around which floors and vertiginous terraces, tilted to better expose their contents, descend in tiers to the foreground, with exaggeratedly low walls wrapping balconies and ramparts – hundreds of entrancing scenes animated by Biblical activity for the curious eye to pry open.
The aerated earth and fanciful volumes of Hieronymus Bosch’s apocalyptic Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-15) similarly fill the canvas with a heaven and hell abundant with fascinating events, and features hypnotic in their allure and terror. The land becomes a terrestrial sponge, a hell into which figures sink and descend, while above ground is a realm of airy, transparent structures. The bewitching yet bewildering panorama, populated with nude figures, is full of secrets and marvels that never lose their power of attraction, offering a different scenario each time we gaze into the picture.