Sara Bard Field: A poet, among many other things

A female judge with pen and ink and a sign that reads "Yes to Women's Rights"
Katrina Romulo/Staff

Most of us, when needing to postpone a dinner date because of “unexpected happenings,” would excuse ourselves through the reason for our deferral. A reply of “I’m swamped with work” or “I have to take my dog to the vet” would do, among many other variations. Few of us, when writing the other party about our cancellation, would postpone with a contemplation on the changing nature of life.

In a letter to a friend dated Nov. 15, 1952, San Francisco-based poet and activist Sara Bard Field, on having to delay their dinner date until after Thanksgiving, wrote: “I am So Sorry but my life is at the mercy of Swift Changes (sic) — Changes within the large Change which is life itself.”

Behind this beautifully obscure excuse lies a woman well-known and widely admired in her era, obscured in name — but not in impact — by time. Much of her practice and self is preserved in an oral autobiography, compiled from interviews conducted later in her life from 1953 to 1964, and sponsored by the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library’s Suffragists Oral History Project. Within the collection of assembled letters, prefaces, interludes and addendums written by ones who knew her, Field surfaces as an outline, sketched out but, as with all portraits, incomplete. She may have preferred it that way.

In a 1921 speech given to Congress on behalf of the Women of the Nation in honor of suffrage pioneers Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, she quoted George Eliot’s poem “The Choir Invisible,” heralding Mott, Stanton and Anthony as women “who live again in minds made better by their presence.” Likewise, Field existed, and exists still, in many minds that either do or do not have an awareness of her presence — through her fostering of artistic visions (the likes of whom include John Steinbeck and Ansel Adams); in the 19th Amendment for her work in the suffrage movement (including a drive across the entire United States to collect more than 500,000 signatures for a petition to the president); and in her lifelong commitment to embrace diversity of thought, which drove her artistry and her activism.

Even though she most often surfaces in discussions of her work as a suffragist or through her romance with lawyer and author C.E.S. Wood, Field was first and foremost a poet. In a preface to the transcript of Field’s oral autobiography published four years after her death, her friend Dorothy Erskine writes that Field and Wood “were intellectuals—true—but with a vast capacity to love, not only one another, as was clear, but to love ideas, people, causes, the good earth, the arts.” It’s clear that Field had many loves — but poetry, Erskine says, was what she “cared for most.”

Field surfaces as an outline, sketched out but, as with all portraits, incomplete.

In her poem “Song” from her first book of poetry, titled “The Pale Woman,” Field emphasizes the way love always paved the path of her life:

But word or knowledge, dear, we lay aside.

We need them not for compass or for guide.

By love we go.

Field centered herself and everything she stood for not simply on what she loved but on the idea of love. She saw love as life’s lodestar, “an urge,” as she says in her oral autobiography “that at first was all personal and later impersonal.”

While loving love may seem a bit cliché, Field’s take on love was grounded in empathy; A running thread through her work is the valuing of differing points of view so they may thereby expand her own. The urge that was love spurred her into what she called “a consistent growth away from narrow creed into ever-enlarging, ever-profounder aspects of thought.”

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Field’s search for other modes of thought also led her to the great love of her life, C.E.S. Wood, who was 30 years her senior. They channeled their appreciation for sharing ideas and visions into The Cats, a mansion in Los Gatos identified by the two cat sculptures that stood guarding the gate. There, Field and Wood worked on their poetry and welcomed fellow artists into their home, which soon became a Bay Area manifestation of the contemporaneous café culture in Paris — the gathering place for the up-and-coming artists of the era to engage in philosophical debate, peer editing and casual conversation.

Field was married, albeit unhappily, when she first met Wood. She had married Albert Ehrgott, a Baptist minister, when she was 18, and they had two children together: Albert Field Ehrgott and Katherine Louise Ehrgott. She had been growing out of her relationship with Ehrgott long before she met Wood, but after spending a stimulating evening with Wood — which she remembers as “a matter of charred roast beef and a violent discussion of orthodoxy” — she realized she could no longer continue to play the part of a minister’s wife.

In what she described as “one of the most yeasty, fermenting periods of my life,” Field left Ehrgott, resenting his monolithic view of the world, and cut herself loose to nurture various tendrils of thought — “Everything in me was breaking up into the realities of the truths that I believe,” she said in her oral autobiography.

Field was anxious about seeking a divorce — about the divorce itself, the social stigma of a divorce in 1914 and how it would impact her children. Though she loved her children dearly — “I really think no mother ever loved her children any more than I did” — she rejected the notion that preserving her marriage for the sake of the children was enough of a reason to stay with their father: “Even mother(‘s) love,” she says, “can’t keep a growing mind from growing.” Maternal love also wasn’t enough for the judge — he granted full custody to Ehrgott.

As she distanced herself from Ehrgott’s orthodoxy in belief, she also distanced herself through her involvement with the suffrage movement; she traveled the country working on various campaigns and was absent for most of Katherine and Albert’s childhoods. After Field’s death, her daughter wrote an afterword for the transcript of the interviews, stating, “My mother’s autobiography confirms what I sensed from early childhood, that she belonged to a world reaching far beyond our home… my brother and I accepted her role in the outside world as a given fact — although not without dismay.” Motherhood, to Field, meant leading by example and pursuing one’s own happiness.

Field and Wood worked on their poetry and welcomed fellow artists into their home, which soon became a Bay Area manifestation of the contemporaneous café culture in Paris…

Ehrgott still allowed Field to see her children because he never really gave up hope that she would come back to him, according to her daughter Katherine. He forbid them from spending time with Wood, however, because he considered his and Field’s doctrine of free love — the belief, in the most basic sense, that love should not be governed by law, allowing people to love however and whomever they please — to be a corrupting influence.

Champions of free love decades before it became a full-blown movement in the summer of 1967, Field and Wood were committed to all forms of freedom — of love, of poetry, of belief, of speech. Field wanted to free poetry in content, to deal “with the great question of love… in a more open and frank way.”

And in her speech to Congress, she emphasizes that “there is not a doctrine that should be denied a tongue. Who knows in what shell of doctrine lies the pearl of truth?”

FIeld also knew, however, that everyone has their own conception of that truth.

As part of the national woman’s suffrage campaign, she and three other women drove across the country, living off of bananas, gathering signatures and raising awareness of the movement. Along the way, she interacted with many women and was surprised by the receptivity toward suffrage by Latter-day Saints, or Mormon, women in Salt Lake City.

“I have wondered since,” she says in her oral autobiography, “and thought if I was a student, I would like to look into it, whether this (interest of Mormon women in suffrage) came from a sense of a long-held perhaps inferiority in the family where Mormonism had been practiced and there had been more than one wife or whether it came from the idea of sharing then and there in the life of other wives that had been introduced into the house.”

For context, Utah abolished polygamy in 1890 — 25 years before FIeld’s road trip — but the precedent of sisterhood lingered.

This anecdote does not stand alone; throughout her entire oral autobiography, she simultaneously exhibits restraint from drawing conclusions about the beliefs of others and recognizes the way that beliefs can hinder acceptance. She is wary of drawing sweeping conclusions even as she confidently expresses her opinions, at times immediately retracting a statement if she feels she has been too quick to assign adjectives (of Wood, before she met him: “he’d always been with stupid women, excuse me — that’s not fair”).

Even a woman with such a commitment to forward thinking could not completely escape contemporaneous mainstream thought. Field did not believe a woman should ever become president: “Inevitably, and I say this as an ardent suffragist, there is a line between what I think is men’s world and women’s world.”

Field does not define a woman’s world by domesticity, however, saying that the woman “should feel that (she’s in) a superior place. She supplies the soul of whatever man does, and certainly, that is something to be reckoned with.”

While this particular sentiment is less palatable by modern standards, Field’s advocacy for generosity in passing judgment — whether for those present to defend themselves or those long gone — continues to achieve relevance in public spheres of discourse.

And as always, Field supplies the caveat to her conviction: “I may be very wrong in this.”

Field’s emphasis on never-ending personal growth made her apprehensive of final drafts and fixed worldviews. She also frequently laments the limitations of a personal narrative within her autobiography: “I’m doing what has always made me dread doing these tape recordings; I’m condensing what took a long time to grow from a tiny beginning to the definite statement I just made.”

She reveled in the limitless possibilities of editability — of rewriting poetry and the self.

Just as she continually revised her views, Field endlessly drafted, rewrote and tossed her early poems. She does not express any regret about eradicating earlier versions; in fact, she is thankful for her complete departure from the past: “I wrote a great many poems which I was wise enough in later years — not too late — to destroy. They were so imperfect.”

Field in this way exhibited an almost compulsive need to obliterate the past — her mother wrote down a song she improvised at the age of 4, singing her baby brother to sleep, of which she is “very glad it wasn’t preserved.”

Field strove for complete and utter precision in language even as she was aware of the ways in which language is not always a perfect mode of expression. Amelia Fry, her interviewer for the oral autobiography, wrote that Field was “never able to come to terms with the irrevocability of the tape,” and “often signaled for the recorder to be turned off while she rearranged her thoughts or prepared to build the next paragraph.”

Yet for someone who constantly erased younger versions of herself, Field placed an incredible amount of faith in youth, subverting the concept of finding wisdom in age and finding it instead in impressionability. She was attracted by the way that youth allows the tides of influence to pull in many directions, not yet bound to the trajectory of a single current. Youth seemed to her “to have an eternal inner strength.” She never sheds her ever-present, unwavering faith in youth, even as she quickly discards first impressions and first attempts.

She reveled in the limitless possibilities of editability — of rewriting poetry and the self.

This emphasis on applying the malleability of a young mind to a lifetime sprouts up in startling ways: Her third and final book of poems, “Darkling Plain,” opens with a preface titled “Note to fellow Marxists.” What follows is, again, unexpected; she quickly departs from a Marxist-esque commentary on class struggle in favor of a theory about poetry — that poetry is best somewhere in between self-involved and superficial, when it combines “familiar immediate fact with eternal mystery.” She notes that this is the reason she cannot explicitly comment on her activist, and perhaps Marxist, ideals — she is too emotionally invested in social change to be able to discuss her revolutionary inclinations through poetry. As “some consolation,” though, she writes, the “poetic call to the vast outer periphery of the now poisoned human well in which many of us are too deeply sunk” is in some way, a small form of revolution — as if the optimism of insisting on “reaffirming the eternally stable” inhabits in itself a small act of rebellion.

The poetic meditative mode she outlines in her “Marxist” prologue even instilled itself in her life in times outside of poetry, in moments of crisis: When her son died in a car accident while she was at the wheel, the books she chose to read in the aftermath embodied the immediate and eternal on a smaller scale — in essence, what we feel but what we cannot say. “Thy Son Liveth,” about a woman whose son dies in World War I, and “The Unknown,” a collection of psychic material.

Either fully embracing nor rejecting institutions of belief in their entirety allowed her to move through them — though at times perhaps in a cavalier manner. Eventually, her journeys in and out of these institutions led her to a Hindu philosophical doctrine, Vedanta, which she largely adhered to. Vedanta, she says, “leads you right from reason to reason to the door where reason can’t enter because the finite mind cannot understand the infinite.” She liked that it required little blind faith and is grounded in a consciousness of love. She was also drawn to its emphasis on unity, another one of the pillars of her work, as a principle of taking a middle-of-the-road route and practicing understanding regarding the beliefs of others.

“I think my interest in the suffrage movement, in the labor movement, came from a feeling of drawing people together, breaking barriers,” Field says.

She knew collaboration was the only way to institute lasting change. But even as she felt the inherent value of unity, she acknowledged that there was one way in which it evaded her: “I do wish I could fully express my ideas of and feelings about unity. Trying to express them in a few words is impossible.”

…the optimism of insisting on “reaffirming the eternally stable” inhabits in itself a small act of rebellion.

The thorny question of fundamental human difference — whether it exists and whether humanity can come together in spite of it — permeates through her work as she interrogates its facets.

It is perhaps for this reason that she, by her own account, strove to achieve a “unity of construction” (viewing her poems as “an architectural thing… the building of an idea into form”) in her poems. This construction could only begin once the thought had matured and developed to the point it can no longer be held back, as expressed in her poem “For Poets”:

Speak no word at all

Till, hanging from the lip

Conglobed like the drop

On the leaf tip,

It finally must fall,

Too full to stop.

This withholding of words reflects her restraint in prematurely asserting knowledge: She viewed much of her life as a “rebellion against dishonesty.” Field also emphasizes that the process of acquiring knowledge to the point of solidification is slow — more sedimentary accumulation than instant transformation.

“I learned a lot and felt more sure of my own ground and self… which is only told because I guess this is supposed to be some kind of autobiography. I don’t like to leave the impression that I just read a book and then became a radical. Not at all,” Field says.

If bridging conflicting ideas allowed her to find her footing, then the conflict itself brought the soul to her work: “Perhaps that’s what life is, in order to make us— well, a little more alive, a constant conflict with somebody or something.”

Scattered throughout her interview, the seemingly offhand but insightful musings underscore her delicate relationship to revolution — embracing without weaponizing.

And when she was lacking insight, she acknowledged this absence not only through retractions but through her use of the negative. The prevalence of “I don’t know”s punctuating her oral autobiography always skirts self-deprecation. Instead, they assert confidence in the liminal space that precedes knowledge — in the known unknowns. On struggling to describe C.E.S. Wood: “I do want to get something of the roundness of his character. Perhaps it’s enough that it’s in his writings. I don’t know whether it is or not. I don’t know.”

To capture the roundness of her character as well as the notion that aspects of it still evade us, her modern readers, it seems best to end with her words. A sonnet from “Darkling Plain” that functions as an ode to this fuzzy liminality:

While the fiery edges of our passion fade

Into the spreading silver

we can sit

And contemplate the eager flame it made

Nor be devoured or wholly blind in it.

This is the pensive hour to lay my head

Upon your breast while we count, one by one,

Our solar lights of memory instead

Of burning to create another sun.

Contact Alejandra Dechet at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aydecks.