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

By | 1 December 2013

‘A Whole Field Spectrum’: Making the Horizontal Vertical, the Vertical Horizontal

The lines of poem ‘i’ immediately (type-) set readers into a situation inviting them to ‘think’ forest: ‘Think forests adamant with leaves, that they pro-pend.’1 This forest is both bending (‘pro-pend’) and unbending (‘adamant’), ontologically suspended (of which the hyphenated ‘pro-pend’ is the visual marker) between states of temporary cessation of action. How does one account for ‘a whole field spectrum’ – by halting, lingering like this?2 Leaves hang like ‘laps’ from trees, their own garments and cover. But immediately our vision is refreshingly revised, the horizontal tips into the vertical, swayed by wind:

Clean leaves with lap cues overly panning, keen to rise off eddies of the horizontal, they prise onto what might so derive them to extend closely.3

‘Panning’ suggests panorama, a lateral rotation, a horizontal swing, while ‘keen to rise off’ proposes a vertical axis (‘narrow from spine’).4 While ‘onto’ positionally indicates both horizontal and vertical, ‘extend’ includes all three coordinates. A leaf’s horizontal make-up is drenched in the desire for verticality, it is ‘lateral in awning but altering axis like the draping shift it is’.5 This awning, whose range of motion is multi-directional, extends, covers and shields, at the same times as it shifts and changes axis, matched by the required flexibility of the tongue when moving between the lateral l-sound and the aw-vowel. Larkin is keen to emphasise that ‘a field of leaves is not a lateral lace’ but an ‘unknit weave is speculating uprights’.6 The leaf-field semantically links with pattern-creation, the cross-layering of weaving (‘lateral crosses to vertical’),7 and to leaf-litter (‘travelling a grid to a ground’).8 Like the quincunx in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn,9 Larkin’s writing constructs geometrical forms, ‘unfolding’ and ‘unenfolding’.10 ‘Unknit weave’ thematically ‘stitches’11 poem ‘ii’ of ‘Field of Leaf’ together, but instead of ‘interweaving’, we find ‘interleaving’, a loosening of the just-established semantic connection:

Narrow from spine fan the intern, no interleaving here a loose field clasp of cover.12

We are guided along a vertical spine, paralleled by grammar: from ‘leaf’ to ‘leaves’ to ‘leaving’. Such morphemic variation suggests that ‘interleaving’ and ‘interweaving’ are connotatively related, forming a borrowed familial bond. Robert Baird characterises Larkin’s writing as full of ‘anti-puns’, which ‘make familiar words strange, as one connotation drives another (usually the more obvious) into hiding.’13 ‘Interleaving’ acquires such supplementary senses through horizontal extension.

When leaves fall, they descend and lateralise from vertical to horizontal plane. Once on the ground, the edges of the tree create a new horizon: ‘These selvages of field generate horizons once on the earth.’14 The reverse process is growing: ‘the vertical boss of yet to be tree’. The tree’s verticality is finite and thereby evokes horizon. Larkin redefines axial planes and restores a sense of encircling horizons: ‘What is openly horizonal is not the ragged non-edges of a field but the reoriented, vertically foreshortened tips of leaf-bearing trees’.15 Similarly, leaves reorient themselves internally in a process of opening (like membranes becoming receptive): ‘a tree not only grows from small to large but also across horizontal to vertical’.16 The first poem ends on a vertical elevation, ‘stands up to canopy’ after the fall (of the leaves) to the ground (the ‘origin pole’) – a renewed growing or seasonal passage.17 We are back where we started: amidst the leaves.

Phenomenal Recognition and Attentive Reading

The advocated cross-over of planes initiates a perspectival shift. Our own strategy of reading Larkin bears similarity to what Merleau-Ponty considered the act of perception before it is turned into judgement.18 To acquire the knowledge already intelligible in Larkin’s language-structure, we need to direct our attention to individual clauses and words:

Fields are opaque lenses which shelter what is lit upon.19

Moments of clarity, ‘elucidation’ through attention,20 indicate a telescopic mode of reading, bringing the remote closer. A telescopic field lens sits between objective and eyepiece to catch rays that would otherwise not reach the eye. ‘[L]it upon’ in combination with ‘lenses’ evokes a forest-clearing, but a horizontal field – Lichtung – is only a deceptive (‘opaque’) Heideggerian Holzweg through the forest. Fields hide and protect (‘shelter’) that which light would normally expose. One cannot read Heidegger’s Lichtung without emphasising Licht (light), but ‘lit upon’ could also be ‘stumbled upon’ – a found place (leading back to the idea of situation).21 However, for Merleau-Ponty, paying attention not only finds something that was already there, it shapes and articulates it as a ‘figure’.22 Merleau-Ponty argues that the judgement of optical illusion is made possible by an ‘analytic perception’ of what something ought to look like.23 In the perceptual field, contradictions can co-exist; vision can deceive, and ‘judging is not perceiving’.24 Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of Cezanne is pertinent to Larkin’s ‘making sense’ of phenomenal experience; despite non-objectivity, Cezanne’s paintings, in which no part of the canvas is given priority over another, truthfully depict experience of the world. Recognition and description of objects is relational. A perceptual change does not lie in the sensible object to be observed but in its understanding. When Larkin compares leaves and waves—‘tender leaf in a field swell is what a sea of upper leaves is to sky reflectance’—this optical illusion inverts planes ‘pre-tidally’.25 In the same way, Gerhard Richter’s Seascape (Sea-Sea) photo-collage of a sea-sky mirror-image highlights its artificial but conventional division along horizon.

‘Leaves of Field’ as a new phenomenological project finds such clearings in language. The textual density performs acts of perceptions, processes of perceiving, as the sensory agent, being active rather than passive. This activity allows for viewing objects in their various aspects. The variation and repetition of certain key conceptual fields in ‘Leaves of Field’ register the approximation of the sensory to that of ‘making sense’. Unlike Heidegger’s view of language as a form of ‘naming beings for the first time’ and thus giving them ‘appearance’,26 for Larkin ‘radical pastoral […] hold[s] in suspension what must remain undecidable but not unaddressable’.27 Innovative language can capture this potentiality of the sayable. Larkin posits this against Heidegger’s belief in poetry’s potential to say something into the open. For Heidegger, ‘Such saying is a projection of the clearing in which announcement is made as to what beings will come into the open as. Projecting [Entwerfen] is the releasing of a throw [Wurf] as which unconcealment sends itself into beings as such’.28 He continues:

Projective saying is poetry: the saying of world and earth, the saying of the arena of their strife and, thereby, of all nearness and distance of the gods. Poetry is the saying of the unconcealment of beings. […] Projective saying is that in which the preparation of the sayable at the same time brings the unsayable as such to the world.29

While this is a process of ‘Entwerfen’ (drafting) which ‘Leaves of Field’ bears out, the poem does not bring about the ‘unconcealment of beings’ and instead rather revels (and reveals them) in their concealment. Distinguishing his thought slightly from Heidegger, Larkin argues

for a theological poetics which doesn’t broach scarcity as arising from a world only partially present, but as discovered from within a world fully given in unconcealment but at once placing itself before an horizon of scarcity, an horizon which engages also with rarity and wonder. Part of that wonder is the thought of the gift itself.30

Thinking back to the initial quotation (‘Fields are opaque lenses which shelter what is lit upon’), the clearing is only ever partially ‘clear’ despite its alleged unconcealment. ‘Field’ and ‘shelter’ evoke other associations and are related to the scarce, horizon and gift. For J.H. Prynne, the etymology of ‘hut’ – meaning to ‘hide, protect, conceal’ but also denoting ‘temporary shelter’ – suggests that the shelter a hut can provide (and by extension, a tree or field) is provisional and potentially threatened.31 Moreover, Prynne writes, ‘the idea of temporary shelter, at a distance from settlement, promotes the dual suggestion of field: both pasturage for livestock, and also the field of military deployment, of rapid advance or retreat and overnight encampments.’32 Prynne tries to establish a ‘closeness of huts to language borders and edges’, and Larkin’s forests or tree-scapes are such a ‘site of an intense focus on the link between nature and language’.33 Heidegger (via Hölderlin) makes the link between man’s poetic dwelling in language, as ‘the temple of being’, which Prynne interrogates precisely because – as shelter in field warfare – ‘the hut-place is not idyllic but is the site of alienation and its social costs’.34 The word ‘hut’ then, just like ‘field’ contains within it ‘all the fierce contradiction of what human language is and does’.35 Field is both idyllic harmony and source of alienation, historical misuse, impoverishment, ruin, and the poet can only hope for some possibility of innocence in poetically dwelling at this site of scarcity.

Attention to Resistance and Difficulty

As investigative writing, ‘Leaves of Field’ expects readers to do philological and botanical research. The poem’s attentiveness to trees demands a slow thinking through the text, as Ryan Dobran suggests for J.H. Prynne’s poetry.36 Prynne’s essay ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ sees resistance as a property of the world; difficulty as our subjective experience of resistance.37 Although the quality and extent may be different, Larkin’s poetry resists us similarly to the way in which the natural world does. Resistance, for both Larkin and Prynne, can only be overcome through attention and imagination. The inherently given resistance of the object I encounter is its clearest form of existence to me. A ‘poetics of scarcity’ can ground the ‘unevenness and instability of the relation’ between human and non-human, and ‘make room for a human self-dedication to nature.’38 The poet’s imagination can thus sit in the fragile space between human and non-human, ‘a scarcity that may prove innovative to the imagination itself’.39

  1. Leaves, p. 13.
  2. Leaves, p. 13.
  3. Leaves, p. 13.
  4. Leaves, p. 15.
  5. Leaves, p. 51.
  6. Leaves, p. 15.
  7. Leaves, p. 17.
  8. Leaves, p. 45.
  9. W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, trans. by Michael Hulse (London: The Harvill Press, 1998); p. 20.
  10. Leaves, pp. 14, 13.
  11. Leaves, p.14.
  12. Leaves, p. 15.
  13. Robert P. Baird, ‘On Peter Larkin’s Leaves of Field’, Chicago Review, 53.1 (Spring 2007), 186-88; p. 186.
  14. Leaves, p. 9.
  15. Leaves, p. 10.
  16. Leaves, p. 9.
  17. Leaves, p. 14.
  18. Compare the discussion of the relation between sensation, judgement and perception in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. by Colin Smith, rev. repr. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), pp. 32-34.
  19. Leaves, p. 13.
  20. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, p. 27.
  21. I owe the reference to ‘Holzweg’ and ‘stumble upon’ to Ian Patterson, ‘Contemporary Poetry’, Lecture, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge (3 February 2012).
  22. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, p. 30.
  23. Ibid., pp. 11; cf. p. 6.
  24. Ibid., p. 34; cf. pp. 5-6.
  25. Leaves, p. 15.
  26. Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, p. 46.
  27. Larkin, ‘Innovation Contra Acceleration’, boundary 2, 26.1 (Spring 1999), 169-74; p. 174.
  28. Heidegger, Off the Beaten Track, p. 46.
  29. Ibid, p. 46.
  30. Larkin, ‘Scarcity by Gift: Horizons of the ‘Lucy’ Poems’, The Coleridge Bulletin: The Journal of the Friends of Coleridge, 23 (Spring 2004), 49-62; p. 52.
  31. Prynne, ‘Huts’, Textual Practice, 22.4 (2008), 613-633; p. 615.
  32. Ibid., pp. 615-16.
  33. Ibid., p. 622.
  34. Ibid., p. 629.
  35. Ibid., p. 630.
  36. Ryan Dobran, ‘Introduction’, Glossator, 2 (2010), 1-10 (accessed 1 March 2012).
  37. J.H. Prynne, ‘Resistance and Difficulty’, Prospect, 5 (1962), 26-30. See also: Prynne, ‘Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems’, Cambridge Literary Review, 1.3 (2010), 151–66.
  38. Larkin, ‘Relations of Scarcity: Ecology and Eschatology in ‘The Ruined Cottage’’, Studies in Romanticism, 39.3 (Fall 2000), 347-64; p. 358.
  39. Ibid.
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