The Ethics of Attention in Peter Larkin’s ‘Leaves of Field’

1 December 2013

This paper is concerned with ‘making sense’ in Peter Larkin’s ‘Leaves of Field’, a long poem that articulates a post-pastoral poetics based on ethical valency activated by attention. ‘Leaves of Field’ directs questions at us: How do we look at ‘natural’ objects? What is adequate poetic description? Can there be ethics without an apparent subject? How can we avoid instrumentalising nature poetically and ecologically after human intervention? What is the ‘value’ of human-and-non-human relations? Creating a lyricism not based on self-expression or explicitly only-human community, Larkin answers the challenges of writing innovatively with ethical consciousness by attending minutely to poetic texture and to ‘attention’ itself.

Reading Larkin’s phenomenologically motivated difficulty and innovation as profoundly ethical without being activist, this paper argues that ‘Leaves of Field’ promotes a poetic forest-phenomenology that initiates a perceptual reorientation. This perspectival shift is aided by the text’s propositional structure and grammatical relationality (as in the latent subjunctive) which allude to a more-than-textual dependence structure, an ontological relationality that offers possibility within the actual, rather than alternative to it.

The key concepts of Larkin’s philosophy – gift, horizon, scarcity, and attention – allow a critical and poetic engagement with environmental destruction, as well as inter- or non-subjectivity. Larkin’s ethically attentive poetry arises from a poetics of speculative scarcity, a ‘scarcity of relation’, which encourages reciprocal relations with, and dedication to, nature. The ethical impetus of Larkin’s granular poetics extends beyond the text; and this attention to nature and text functions as its dedicatory, yet necessarily scarce, ‘gift’.

Unsingular in particle were singles by leaves on the vertical boss of yet to be tree. Farness (up) to the curtain of origin we only seam nearer, suspension instanced in a hung-over, rooted out of a field’s nearest counter-imparture. Attentive curtailing over branches bracketed back.1

How do we see the particular object (‘singles by leaves’) and how the totality (‘field’ of leaves)? Peter Larkin’s ‘Leaves of Field’ constitutes itself as field (which is ‘unsingular’), without the vertical drops of single lines. His non-lineated blocks of prose (justified and with generous margins) emphasise the poem’s totality as opposed to its particularities, just as single leaves blend into a tree’s canopy. While this may indicate a priority of the abstract and non-discriminate over the specifically granular, ‘Leaves of Field’ looks at and reads into specifics, allowing (and even necessitating) lateral exits and extensions; its dense fieldness requires a retinal activity that is not only rectilinear.

Larkin’s poetry, while praised within poetry circles as part of a late-Modernist tradition, has been largely ignored, perhaps because of the naturalist focus of his work, its quietness and rather unglamorous abstruseness, or because of its minute observation of arboreal phenomena. Only the occasional review and book chapter discuss his work alongside other experimental post-pastoral writers.2; J.H. Prynne, ‘On the Poetry of Peter Larkin’, No Prizes, 2 (2013), 43-5; Jonathan Skinner, ‘Thoughts on Things: Poetics of the Third Landscape’, Eco Language Reader, ed. Brenda Iijima, (Brooklyn, NY: Portable Press at Yo Yo Labs and Callicoon; NY: Nightboat Books, 2010), pp. 9-51; G.C. Waldrep, ‘‘Go Quotiently’: Contemporary British Poetry from Shearsman’, Kenyon Review, 2 (2012).] This paper intends to remedy this by offering a close reading of the title poem of the collection Leaves of Field against a background of phenomenology and post-pastoral poetics. Framed by issues of scarcity, environmental exploitation, and attentional ethics, this essay considers how, in Larkin’s writing, trees become the juncture where ethical responsibility and use-value meet. Ethical efficacy is a common concern in ecopoetics, (anti-, post-) pastoral, and nature writing because of the perceived urgency of ecological issues. In response to this urgency, eco-poet John Kinsella calls for ‘activist poetics’, ‘a moral purpose’, poetry as ‘an act of resistance’3 – a poetics that diverges from Larkin’s quieter ethical engagement. Although Larkin’s poetry is not ‘activist’, neither is it passive: he is an ethical theorist in whose poetry philosophical and ethical questions acquire compositional gravity. This paper focuses on the placing of ethics and phenomenology in Larkin’s work by means of commentary, complemented by other lines of enquiry, such as the ‘book of nature’ metaphor and the problem of ‘reading’ nature, Modernist aesthetics of attention, and an engagement with phenomenology.4 This essay sketches out the relation of Larkin’s thinking to that of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty with regard to specific textual problems, at the exclusion of other sources of Larkin’s thinking (e.g. Geoffrey Hartman, John Milbank, Jean Luc Marion, Anne-Lise Francois). Instead, it discusses the poem’s poetic form and strategies for meaning-making in conjunction with Larkin’s concepts of scarcity, gift, and horizon. It attempts a making sense of ‘making sense’ in Larkin’s ‘Leaves of Field’.

One way of ‘making sense’ is tackling the poetry’s opacity via the set of related terms and clues of horizon, scarcity, and gift. In Larkin’s poetics, scarcity is redefined as not purely economic: as reoriented attention, it encompasses potential abundance while simultaneously expanding ontological and relational horizons. This paradox pertaining to scarcity (and Larkin’s use of it) is never fully resolved but amply explored in poetic terms in Leaves of Field. Since the 1990s, scarcity has been crucial to Larkin’s poetics, from his own Prest Roots Press, Terrain Seed Scarcity: Poems from a Decade (Salt, 2001), Lessways Least Scarce Among (Shearsman, 2012), to a recent essay collection Wordsworth and Coleridge: Promising Losses (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Lessways expands on the ‘behalf of’5 – already an interest in the essay ‘Scarcely on the Way’, and emerging in Leaves of Field, which overall is more dedicated to horizon. Leaves of Field sees a contingent finite verticality intimately in touch with horizon within which the ethical appears as its agent. In its diminished or ‘lesser’ form, scarcity still has the propensity of giving, and thus is a form of reduced gift. This insufficient or not-yet-complete gift is granted an outlook upon fulfillment in anticipation; in other words: in the figure of horizon.6, intensified when such givens appear to be given to a place, also entails a calling on gift, one paradoxically simultaneous with the limited capacity of givens to emplace themselves definitively’ (p. 108). Also: ‘The capacity of things to be dedicated, their sacral horizon, does not deny their origin from nothing but affirms a differential less than nothing: the paradox of lessness mutates toward a perception of gift’ (p. 114).]

The collection Leaves of Field comprises, apart from the title poem, the short collections ‘Open Woods’ (2005) and ‘Moving Woods’ (2005) which intersperse blocked prose-passages with verse tail-pieces. ‘Leaves of Field’, by contrast, has no such structuring verse interruptions; it is laid out in one elongated and slim chunk (or stalk, root, trunk) of prose. Divided into five sections, each mini-chapter is dedicated to a different part of a tree (‘Field of Leaf’; ‘Stalk of Branch’, ‘Leaf of Tree’, ‘Leaves of Root’), with the last section (‘Leaves Field Horizon’) widening the angle, setting off the tips of leaves, stalks, roots, all of which were explored in their propensity for creating small fields. The last section tests ‘how field promised horizon’7 and brings particulars together in the suggestion of relatedness:

Between air of heaven, and earth in furniture, is layer of leaf, which distends along its fingers suspending hold: what holds it there (earth) not what it gave way to (heaven) and not what it means (field).8

Leaf is here pictured as the connective tissue between rootedness and the promise of horizons – field being the enabling form and structure underlying surface differences.

John Kinsella praises Larkin for writing ‘radical pastoral’ the aim of which is ‘to highlight […] abuses of the non-human ‘natural’, of inequalities and injustices in hierarchical interactions’.9 For Carol Watts, Larkin’s ‘pastoral is thus marked by a long history of often violent accumulation and removal, and yet intimations of a translative surplus, gift.’10 Rather than determining Larkin’s position within the emerging radical post-pastoral genre, and rather than approaching the spiritual care implicit in the word ‘pastoral’, I argue that ‘Leaves of Field’ puts forward a poetic ethics of care and attention, not for rural, idyllic country-life, but for the specific limitations and structural characteristics of a tree. The poetic segmentation of a tree is explored for its relation to ground, horizon, hierarchy and the possibility for extension:

What ‘grows’ in my work of course is the persistence of a pastoral innocence, the refusal of any totality of demystification (just where innocence threatens to forsake our cultural horizons, but in fact stains them with a sort of enringing compression).11

Larkin believes his poetry has the seed of a growing ‘innocence’ (not knowing) which ‘enrings’ the subject who desires to know the objects around her.12 Innocence, then, is a ‘compressive’ force; and the notional pressure that generates Larkin’s poetry is activated by attention. This attention, ethically interrogated by the poem it activates, is directed at nature, and prompts the guiding compositional question: in what ways does one look at and write about trees? In Larkin’s own words: ‘How does, once supposed, the standing tree emerge from a more primary field of leaves?’13 Outlined in Larkin’s preface, these questions encounter careful prosodic consideration in the long poem that follows. The possibility and desirability of an axial conversion of planes – making the horizontal more vertical, the vertical more horizontal – is the collection’s observational focus. No vague praise for ‘the open’,14 the collection matches the topological across the topographic to suggest a permeating but contingent finite field:

This writing attempts a study of greened enclosures, manufactured as grids or reserves. It counters a world in which the purely open has for too long been compromised, stimulated, by urban expansionism and by the denatured figure of radical desert.15

‘Leaves of Field’ typographically establishes such a ‘grid’, a junction (‘seam’) of layers, multidimensional in its frequent inversions of vertical and horizontal lines approaching new perceptual orientations: ‘a field [of leaves] stretches better than it extends’.16 Confident arboreal verticality, however, is always threatened by the making-horizontal of deforestation. Larkin’s ‘curtain of origin’ evokes a horizon, a limit of perception, its ‘farness’ gesturing to the only hypothetically remote origins of trees.17 These trees that the poetry contemplates do not reach towards an origin far in the distance – they are plantations and hence artificial. Nonetheless, Larkin assures us that such trees ‘can be read by the poetry in a more negotiatory way, perhaps even offering a degree of un-innocent (because already harmed) redemption’, in other words, the ‘thrownness of this predicament might be recast as an offering (understood as weaker but more insistent than any resolution)’.18

  1. Peter Larkin, Leaves of Field (Exeter: Shearsman, 2006), p. 56. Hereafter cited as Leaves.
    References are to the title poem ‘Leaves of Field’ (pp. 7-58); the collection also contains ‘Open Woods’ (pp. 59-94) and ‘Moving Woods’ (pp. 95-114).
  2. In addition to the material cited in this essay:
    Ian Brinton, ‘Peter Larkin’s ‘Lessways Least Scarce Among’’, Tears in the Fence (June 2012); Mark Dickinson, ‘Peter Larkin: Scarcity, Forests, Poetry and Ecology’, Unpublished UG Dissertation, University of Hull, 2002; —, ‘Peter Larkin’s Knowledge of Place’, Cordite Poetry Review (2010). (accessed 4 September 2013)
  3. John Kinsella, Activist Poetics: Anarchy in the Avon Valley, ed. by Niall Lucy (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2010), pp. 2, 16.
  4. While it would be advisable to clarify the interconnections between phenomenological attention, environmental ethics and innovative poetics further, this essay can only outline these concerns with regard to Larkin’s writings. Texts that explore these connections are worth mentioning here: Ethics and Phenomenology, ed. by Mark Sanders and J. Jeremy Wisnewski (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012); Jean Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans. by Jeffrey L. Kosky (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2002); the special issue ‘Earthographies: Ecocriticism and Culture’ of New Formations, 64 (Spring 2008); Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2007) and Eco-Phenomenology: Back to the Earth Itself, ed. by Charles S. Brown and Ted Toadvine (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2003). Mark Sander’s characterisation of Merleau-Ponty’s ethical thought and action as ‘engagement-at-a-distance’ (p. 104), for instance, offers another way to frame Larkin’s poetics as ethical rather than activist; yet this lies outside the scope of this essay.
  5. See also: ‘The lessened risks a failure of relation but offers its own sub-species on behalf of’ in Larkin, Lessways Least Scarce Among (Emerson Green, Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2012), p. 7.
  6. See Larkin, ‘Scarcely on the Way: The Starkness of Things in Sacral Space’, in Wordsworth and Coleridge: Promising Losses (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 107-117: ‘That exposure [to the world’s givens
  7. Leaves, p. 55.
  8. Leaves, p. 54.
  9. John Kinsella, Disclosed Poetics: Beyond Landscape and Lyricism (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007), p. 7.
  10. Carol Watts, ‘Zeta Landscape: Poetry, Place, Pastoral’, in Placing Poetry, ed. by Ian Davidson and Zoë Skoulding (New York, N.Y.: Rodopi, 2013), pp. 281-304; p. 297.
  11. Peter Larkin and Edmund Hardy, ‘Less than, more at: an interview with Peter Larkin’, Intercapillary Space (accessed 1 September 2013).
  12. Larkin and Hardy, ‘Less than, more at’.
  13. Leaves, p. 9.
  14. I am here thinking of Heidegger’s discussion in ‘Why Poets?’ of Rilke’s understanding of ‘the open’ as related to risk, being ‘unbarriered’ but also ‘unlit’ (p. 213) and ‘opaque’ (p. 214), cf. Martin Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, trans. by Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), pp. 200-241.
  15. Larkin, ‘Preface’ to ‘Parallels Plantations Apart’ (1998), in Terrain Seed Scarcity: Poems from a Decade (Cambridge: Salt, 2001), pp. 107-112; p. 107.
  16. Leaves, p. 54, original italics.
  17. Leaves, p. 56.
  18. Larkin and Hardy, ‘Less than, more at’
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