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

By | 1 December 2013

Dependence Structures

Larkin’s forest-phenomenology is guided by the concept of ‘emergent dependence’.1 However, this is not an ‘allegory’2 as Robert Baird claims – there is no descriptive guise, nor a pastoral enamelling, operative in Larkin’s text. ‘Leaves of Field’ is ethically motivated in such a way that it resists fetishising description just as much as programmatic narrativity. Larkin interrogates dependence structures, systems and nodes through an analysis of vascular and dermal arboreal structures. Already Walt Whitman saw the democratic possibility inherent in a leaf-metaphor, in which leaves exemplify notional plurality. The tree’s branch network, which is reflected by the root network and holds the tree’s trunk in equipoise, offers visual-metaphoric and conceptual discussion of relationality, hierarchy, and a pluralistic infrastructure. The collection’s first poem moves ‘over’ topologies of leaf (the crown of the tree, ‘overlap’, ‘cover’, ‘overly’) to the ground (‘cross ground’) and into it (‘a slide of root’ and ‘drystick below’). The state between suspends hierarchal structures: ‘to be above root but without hovering’.3 Those of highest rank, the main branches or ‘primaries’, by contrast, ‘extrude a wealth of secondary prop dependence’,4 suggesting tonally an ethical optative subjunctive in that non-hierarchical hover, as well as the impossibility of avoiding any form of ‘system’. The verticalising of a tree can have its shortfalls when ‘vertical’ figures only support: ‘a vertical’s lessening to prop’.5 Being ‘prop’(erty) implies ownership as well as dependence:

So, rankless, to be above root but without hovering, extrude a wealth of secondary prop dependence onto lean uprights of what will be outcrop-array on its way to internal support.6

The leaf needs a stem as its prop in order to be leaf; it depends on a stem to be above ground: its invisible class(ificatory) support. Coming back to the problem of reading and writing nature, this critiques, among other hierarchies, the historical nature poet whose occupation depended on wealth and leisure and on people economically unable to be poets themselves. Less speculatively, the description of dependence structures within tree-structures can stand to illustrate what such a ‘rankless’ position could look like, what, indeed, ‘internal’ rather than external support would require.

Section ‘i’ of ‘Field of Leaf’ concludes with a ‘petition’:

Neglect how in real leaf the surface changes when unfolding, not how it stitches petition to earth when unfielding.7

‘Neglect’ and ‘real’ re-negotiate the imaginary situation created by the call to ‘think forests’, recalling W.S. Graham’s ‘Imagine a forest / A real forest.’8 The negated intent draws attention to our lack of attention to real leaves with an ironic imperative. This is no militant call for ‘attention!’, instead Larkin insists we should not neglect the earth’s petition – to us.

Despite this quiet postulation, there is no ‘oughtness’ in Larkin’s writing. He writes no Wordsworthian ‘Ode to Duty’, nor does his poetry prescribe how we ought to pay attention to trees. His poetry’s ethical framework is based on regard, directing the readers’ minds towards trees. Larkin encourages giving attention voluntarily, and that in itself is a process of gift. Larkin’s attentive relationship with the non-human acknowledges human wrongdoing, but is less a ‘Standing Up to Aggressors’ than John Kinsella’s, for whom there has to be a poetic ‘prompt’ for ethical change, politically driven to a specified outcome.9

Relations of Scarcity and Horizon

Larkin’s essays and poems are permeated by the concept of scarcity and help us theorise such an ethics of attention. Larkin defines scarcity as a limit determined by natural resources and socially induced desire, but the point at which something is considered ‘scarce’ depends on its relation to abundance. A ‘scarcity of relation’ therefore expresses ‘a common liability within the yearning for relation itself’; scarcity is always relative.10

One can ‘intuit’ scarcity, speculatively, before its ‘horizon of gift’,11 and in this way prevent moral indifference.12 We usually think of gift as allied with superfluity whereas Larkin believes that gift is more closely linked to scarcity. For Larkin, a ‘theological poetics’13 (aiming to explain mysterious forces and causes) can only be practised by finding scarcity within the world (being its constituent). Scarcity arises in a world that is ‘fully given’, widely available or plain to see before its own ‘horizon of scarcity’.14 ‘Rarity’ and ‘wonder’ are brought about by the gift, the full givenness, of scarcity itself.15 For Larkin, scarcity ‘emerg[es] from a strong absence as absence’s own weaker and therefore negotiable other, as that which can grant plenitude, or presencing, but not as itself or as presence itself.’16 A poem embeds concepts of scarcity if it shows that it cannot adequately insert links to the non-human, or more-than-human, universe into its own textuality without merely rendering itself as an absence thereof.17 In ‘Leaves of Field’ there is no nostalgia for dear, precious leaves (‘dearth’): ‘scarce veil of leaves clearing dearth of bed but all primaries left out upon it’,18 a primary being that which is not-scarce.19 The scarce leaves are ontologically related to abundance, together forming a collective field (‘leaves coated’) or an excess: ‘sheer overlap is radiants efficient to verticals, to the field as not to a lateral.’20 This seeming contradiction (of scarcity as abundant gift) is explained by Larkin thus:

Scarcity can only obtain if God gives to a lesser difference of reception, which then allows the further gift of seeing in insufficiency the figure of anticipation. Abundance is given under the sign of scarce relation, a negotiation between the opacity of finitude and the translucence of a desiring spirituality which maintains its bond in weakness.21

Scarcity is the innovative (rather than merely reactive) force that drives the poem, ‘a quality that is diminishable but rebounds in unexpected ways, […] gaining extension and depth and new horizons of relation’22 in correspondence to one’s attention. Larkin explains the connection between innovation, scarcity and horizon in the essay ‘Innovation contra Acceleration’:

Certainly in my own work innovation has a function to the extent it enables a poetics of scarcity, understood less as minimalist exclusion than as the condition of a passage to the future, of a persistence of local relation to plenitude through a strict observance of the irreducible frugality of the now; […] with its costly projections onto a future congealing the glimmering margins of the present. To the extent that an innovatory language inherits this fixation on acceleration, it also has within it the possibility of opening up to a more answerable scarcity at the horizon of the burdens of the new.’23

Not only is our relationship with nature burdened, so is our language use, even that of innovative language. As J.H. Prynne writes in ‘Huts’, ‘the house of language is not innocent, and is no temple.’24

Scarcity understood in Larkin’s sense is speculative; it demands to ‘look again’ at how an object and the experience of it have been ‘re-hollowed’ and potentially resignified: ‘where life is most immediate it is most open to being emptied out but also to being re-hollowed or recalled to itself’.25 Hence ‘scarcity’ denotes a phenomenological limit, with the possibility of ‘gaining extension and depth and new horizons of relation.’26 The ‘verbal micro-variations’ which characterise Larkin’s practice are not an end in themselves, they ‘take on the ‘scarce’ or ungroundable burden of an horizon or ontological orientation’.27 The abstract concept of scarcity, which promises relation by its sheer givenness that can be re-given, becomes specific or granular as gift. Larkin proposes: ‘A scarcity of relation doesn’t effectively bask in the shuttle of detached plenitudes opaquely speculative of the world: where a meaning does occur it does so as gift and event, and so as unconditional but slighted.’28

  1. Leaves, p. 51.
  2. Baird, p. 188.
  3. Leaves, p. 13.
  4. Ibid., p. 13.
  5. Ibid., p. 15.
  6. Ibid., p. 13.
  7. Ibid., p. 14.
  8. W.S. Graham, ‘Imagine a Forest’, in Collected Poems: 1942-1977 (London: Faber, 1979), pp. 196-97; p. 196.
  9. Kinsella, Activist, p. 16.
  10. Larkin, ‘Relations’, pp. 350, 361.
  11. Larkin, ‘Scarcely on the Way’, p. 111.
  12. Larkin, ‘Relations’, p. 364.
  13. Larkin, ‘Scarcity’, p. 52.
  14. Ibid., p. 52.
  15. Ibid., p. 52
  16. Larkin, ‘Scarcity by Gift’, p. 52.
  17. Cf. Larkin and Hardy, ‘Less Than, More At’.
  18. Leaves, p. 13.
  19. Larkin, Terrain Seed Scarcity: Poems from a Decade (Cambridge: Salt, 2001), p. xi.
  20. Leaves, p. 13.
  21. Larkin, ‘Scarcity by Gift’, p. 60
  22. Matthew Hall, ‘Interview with Peter Larkin’, Cordite Poetry Review (2010) (accessed 13 February 2012)
  23. Larkin, ‘Innovation contra Acceleration’, p. 174.
  24. Prynne, ‘Huts’, p. 630.
  25. Hall, ‘Interview with Peter Larkin’.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Larkin, Lessways Least Scarce Among, p. 7
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