Peter Larkin’s Knowledge of Place

By | 1 August 2010

There are many distractions surrounding the everyday, so many asides busy vying for our attention, alleviating us of our time. Objects are seen less for themselves and more often as materials which become products, products which remove the things themselves from an originated state. Landscapes are demarcated in terms of their service.

In this way it’s become increasingly difficult to clarify certain terms. What do we mean now, for instance, when we speak of nature or the wild? Where is the common ground of understanding in these terms? What does it mean to write poetry out of a landscape that would perceive, within its own composition, not only a place occupied by nature and including by degrees notions of the wild, but also one that is perhaps predicated on an anthropocentric clause of cultivation and development, which although other, are nevertheless aspects of nature itself?

Alongside this runs a similar stream of thought, one which concerns, to some degree, a different kind of landscape, or at least a different way of seeing the landscape – that of theology. Theological writing and writing about the wild and nature have often shared the same space on a page; and more often than not, it is poetry which explores the commonality between the sacred and the wild, the corporeal and the temporal and the perceptions which inhabit the disclosed and undisclosed things which occupy them.

In the changing and developing milieu of habitations, humanities’ place grows more precarious and the paradigms or fractals of occupancy within place become ever more complex and less predictable. In our worst moments, the shifting horizon of tomorrow eschews an eschatological ruin and post-human cities are built from the neurotic wilderness and techno-scopic vision fuelled by an unsustainable market, based around infinite growth.

One of the ways in which poetry functions within this paradoxical environment is to return to the body and to simply walk out into the world. By being in the world, through an intimacy of a thorough immersion, the poetry can radically re-engage with otherness and begin to propagate alternative ways of seeing and occupying place, or at the very least, remind us of the intimacy and otherness of our surroundings. Not by relocating the human body as the central process, but as a part of a process of being within and with the world.

As a writer of poetry I am influenced by the environment in all its coherent and competing forms; I am, I suppose, interested in a poetry that is earth-sensitive without being reductive and one which navigates the subtler and complex relations that simultaneously occupy place ‘[a poetry] which alternates between being bounded and unbounded, between being mediated and immediate’[2]. From the slightest micro organism to wide ranging forests and tree lined avenues to post urban developments and brown-field sites, I seek a poetry that can take us on and on in hope of something.

Peter Larkin is one such poet; his work consists of poetry where ‘depth is still new’[3] with a ‘knowledge of place which is reducible to a sort of co-existence with that place’[4]. ‘So skindust in flotilla does encyst the membrane of the pool, is generalist heeder, not local (too global) neighbour. Our dart to depth will flout by soul’[5]. The folds of landscape and openings are what gently curves upon the ‘soul’, but ‘our dart to’ the distance, perhaps erroneously, casts us toward the further horizon, making obscure the ‘depth’ of the ‘near’ surface; for Larkin, as for Wittgenstein the ‘depths are on the surface’[6].

A lot of these terms embody a kind of mapping, and it’s possible to read Larkin’s work in terms of mapping. ‘Band-stratified, they tender mass for map. By the shade of an attribute, it mulls a graph in fir needles[7]. In a more explicit way, Edward S Casey has stated that ‘far from being mere representations of the earth, [maps] can become part of the earth itself’[8].This mapping or reading of place, by scansion, by literally footwork metered out over the surface of the earth, is artistically re-presented or re-emplaced on the page as prosody. In it we seek Wordsworth’s ‘one soft impulse saved from vacancy’[9].

So much poetry vacates place in favour of an internalised dialogue, or anecdotal referent, artistically directing depth only by way of comic or ironic relief. As Larkin posits ‘a ghost of irony is in spirit in the woods’[10]. In a lot of modern verse the distance between things remains, a vacant hollowing of substance or play of meaning, but in Larkin ‘The descent into some hollow of ground serves to instil a void on which thought might have its fill.’[11]

We can read in the poetry, what Suzanne Raitt describes in the Rhetoric of Efficiency: ‘efficiency, economy, and the elimination of waste’.[12] This economy and elimination is all the more pertinent given current political and global ecological themes, although not as an eco-poetics of didacticism, or mimesis but as a poetical culture of responsibility rebuffed by intellectual vigour and folded within being. ‘I drove, repulsed, at the given-way, so many mild trees no more than hedge height felled at their linear logics of aspersal.’[13]

John Kinsella has said of his own writing practise that he writes ‘poems of resistance and protection’[14] ; in Peter’s work it seems less obviously ‘resistance and protection’ than granulation and the ‘otherness of gift’[15]. Larkin’s end, unusually, does not implicate a horizon of irrecoverable damage, piloted toward eschatological ruin, but rather it is ‘sprained of recovery.’[16] Where, nevertheless, horizon demarcates the possible, but within the limits of the given, a given which is open as much to the horizon, as it is bound to the vertical – ‘it is the ordinary become extraordinary’[17]. ‘Here, from the root outward, comes the narrowest clearing towards horizon’[18].

Jonathan Skinner in his fascinating essay ‘Poetries of the Third Landscape’ notes that ‘for Larkin, landscape is not so much a thing as a process, a kind of prosody marked by opening’[19]. In Larkin’s words a prosody or ‘A poetry of love reduced to scarcity […] a wheeling for the wild.’ [20] This wheeling is ‘no erection/ of wall.’[21] Far from it, Citing Laura Riding, ‘It is not a […] wall. It is a written edge of time’.[22]

Peter Larkin has been one of the most pervasive influences on my poetic practise, his Terrain Seed Scarcity, was a major turning point for me, and probably, in hindsight, modern or radical landscape/ pastoral[23]. So too was J H Prynne in his Plant time Manifold and Pearls that Were; Peter Riley, Thomas A Clark, Harriet Tarlo and Maggie O’ Sullivan. These contemporary voices gave me the impetus to return to the peripheries and to explore the intimate relations of place, radicalising the loci and gifting substance to hope; albeit with a matrix of clause, poetry became making, sited, as a beautiful yet complex prosodic life.


[1] Peter Larkin, What the Surfaces Enclave of Wang Wei, (The Gig, 2004).

[2] Eve Ingalls, “Landscape at the Edge of the Body,” artist’s statement of 1996.

[3] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘Eye and Mind’, in Basic writings, edited by Thomas Baldwin (Routledge, 2004), p. 311.

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ‘The Spatiality of One’s Own Body and Motility’. ibid 109.

[5] Peter Larkin, ‘Seek Source Bid Sink’, in Terrain Seed Scarcity, (Salt Publishing, 2001), p.44.

[6] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, ed. G.E.M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 77.

[7] Peter Larkin, ‘Three Forest Conformities’, ibid. P.62.

[8] Edward S. Casey, ‘Concluding Reflections’ in Earth-Mapping,(University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 93

[9] William Wordsworth, ‘Lines left upon a seat in a Yew-tree’, in The Major Works, (Oxford World Classics 2000), p. 29.

[10] Peter Larkin, ‘Three Forest Conformities’, ibid. P. 68

[11] Peter Larkin, ‘Landscape with Figures Afield’, ibid. P.146

[12] Suzanne Raitt, ‘The Rhetoric of Efficiency in Early Modernism,’ Modernism/modernity, vol. 3,

No 1(2006), p.835

[13] Peter Larkin ‘Three Forest Conformities’, ibid. P. 57

[14] John Kinsella, ‘Vermin: A Notebook’, available online at:

[15] Peter Larkin ‘Scarcely on the way: The starkness of things in sacral space’, available online at:

[16] Peter Larkin ‘Parallels Plantations Apart’, ibid. P. 113

[17] Edward S. Casey, ibid. P.165.

[18] Peter Larkin, ‘5: Leaves Field Horizon’ in Leaves of Field, (Shearsman Books, 2006.), p.51

[19] Jonathan Skinner, ‘Poetries of the Third Landscape’ in, (eco(lang) (uage (reader) ed. Brenda Iijima (portable press at yo-yo labs / Nightboat books, 2010),

[20] Peter Larkin, Preface to ‘Whitefield in Wild Wheel’, in Terrain Seed Scarcity, (Salt, 2001), p. 153

[21] Peter Larkin, ‘Rings Resting The Circuit’, (The Gig, 2004) poem 13.

[22] Laura (Riding) Jackson, ‘Poet: A Lying Word’, in The Poems of Laura Riding, (Carcanet, 1980),

p. 216

[23] I have avoided the use of ‘eco’ here as a taxonomic prefix to the poetic, as I’m not entirely comfortable with it. Although ‘landscape’ and ‘Pastoral’ are contestable terms, their very mutability and adaptability offers some service of relation, I think, to the reader.

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