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

By | 1 December 2013

Value Projections

In ‘Leaves of Field’, there is an implied ‘machine’ in the forest – a disruption of sentimental pastoral harmony.1 Registering human intervention, by means of deforestation, landscaping, or plantation, prevents pastoral myth-making. And yet the pastoral genre itself centres on human interventions while simultaneously mythologising its topoi of shepherds, country youths, maidens and its man-made landscapes or enclosures (meadows and pastures). Since there are few ‘open fields’ in Britain, every site for poetic description (forest or fen) is compromised in its history of thousands of years of human management. What is more, fields are etymologically implied in mastery, struggle, and the military. Perhaps not unsurprisingly then, one can find intimations of war crime amid the leaf-bed:

A ductility of non-reprisals, each swathe of leaves is case by case overlying intent, the tree’s own ectogenous cartouche unhollowing itself.2

Ductility not only refers to a metal’s extension by beating (undoing hollowness?), but also to being ductile, easily led, in a military context, linking with ‘reprisal’ and ‘cartouche’. The ground here is unprotected (‘armourless’)3 and the leaves create a mass grave when they fall. References to dress as camouflage, anatomy and physiology (‘swathing a venation’, ‘a tree’s shins’)4 invite us mentally to connect tree and human. This relationality brought out by semantic parallels (using phrases normally associated with war, fighting, or with human action) makes one aware of the ethical dimension of trees, their unwilled witnessing of atrocities, when we hear ‘underlings’ for ‘underlimbs’:

Do mature leaves net pre-tidally or store for these implicit underlimbs? Abundance of catchless outlap which dresses field?5

Such semantic transposition avoids imperative instruction, while tonally and semantically voicing ethical awareness of implicit relations to wider non-tree-related concerns. Seemingly tangential associations are integral to the discourse of Larkin’s work. That one may think of parachutes and an undignified crash-landing and death when reading ‘pilot tissue unlignified in spread conferred, this tails from the low branch type’6 illustrates how reading about trees is more than reading about trees. This is a description of disintegration, the tissue is unlignified, that is, it is the reverse process of becoming wood, just as ‘stalk-targeted leaf unplaited’ describes the un-doing and un-lacing of a plait or fold. The targeted pilot-plane falls. The elevation associated with clouds or the ‘above’ precipitates the ‘fateful’ situation of the tree. At any point, the tree is threatened with the loss of its innocent dress, ‘the shimmering plates of field guiding underpittances of local wold to a fateful litter held in the tree-cloud.’7 This disruption is not featured as an apocalyptic warning. Writing about forests, which have externally imposed demarcations, is a negotiative approach, ‘offering a degree of un-innocent (because already harmed) redemption’.8 But the landscape does not ‘come alive’ through language, as Harriet Tarlo suggests.9 Larkin is aware that his writing is no easy redressing of a wound or imbalance: ‘re-leaf can’t distribute’.10

The pastoral politics of ‘Leaves of Field’ are more macroscopic than any focus on the purely granular would reveal. Read in Marxian terms, the forest’s ‘use-value’ effects the ‘reduction of the forests to the status of a material resource in need of management’.11 For Larkin, forests offer a covered space as shelter, not sacrosanct but stark, despite, even because of, their predicaments and ‘unremote origins’.12 Larkin elaborates the suitability of such imperfect subject matter as trees for poetic matter:

Plantations are ‘scarcer’ in the sense they have unremote origins, are in large part human constructs, and have no guaranteed future. They are less than ideal starting-points, being already internal to the ontic world of dominance and consumption, but for all that they have strong reserves at times escaping or re-setting human command: they are shelters where we do not live, dependent on the demands we make by how we live.13

These poetic forests are deliberately not wildwood but plantation, ‘a delegate (from primal forest) impoverished enough to refer to the human appetite for shelter.’14 While the place of the sacred or sanctuary in the wild (and their associations with the Romantic tradition, explicitly Wordsworth) is present here, Prynne’s essay ‘Huts’ like Larkin in the above passage, reminds us that huts and shelters have a more equivocal history and association than merely as welcoming places of refuge and repose.15 Similarly, forest-plantations are grounded in scarcity, constructed by humans, ‘internal to the ontic world of dominance and consumption’:16 ‘as sheltered as its non-preserve can inhere’.17 Plantations imply exploitative economics; plantations are used for crops, and are also historically associated with the slave-trade. Larkin problematises the ‘thrownness’ of this predicament of responsibility and facticity: ‘field is sown not thrown’,18 in other words, the field is made, not infinitely present.

Larkin’s language might be of particularity but it is infused with discourses of power and the military (excerpted above) and the law (‘dia-parity’; ‘debitance’; ‘lease of field’; ‘negotiable’ and ‘intersanction’).19 The subjecthood in ‘Leaves of Field’ does not mime sentimental autobiography nor the witnessing self of (post-) Romantic tradition. Observation happens in a narratorless mode. This absence speaks from and to the diffusion of subjective expressivity in late-modernist thought and writing but arises from an eco-poetic tendency that forswears an anthropomorphic centre and thus presents a critical anti- or pre-nostalgic position: ‘how an ante-nostalgia bristles!’20 While Larkin avoids a certain nostalgia one can find in other (post-) pastoral writers, the emphasis on horizon may well be framed in terms of nostalgia or, more positively, utopia (in itself a pastoral characteristic). The granular particularity of Larkin’s visual-poetic focus in fact serves the unconcealment of the rarity or wonder of a particular place or perception. Despite the risk of the merely acquisitive within the museum-industry, this is precisely where the poem’s ethical content resides. This rarity and wonder resists ‘museumification’21 through its difficulty and emphasis on un-innocent scarcity. Larkin is aware of the problems of poetically negotiating our implication in the world. Any relation between human and non-human tightened through attention is precarious. Human desire for more is too much and nature’s capacity to provide too little. Even so, for Larkin, it is ‘by means of this scarcity, however, that the human can attach itself’.22


Reading ‘Leaves of Field’, its phenomenological investigations and acumen, its probing of reading and text-generating strategies, one makes sense of the sharpness of its ethical attention. Larkin’s writing is a subtle ethical project. It is not so much that trees are ethical in themselves, rather it is first and foremost that as an object of and for perception, Larkin’s engagement with trees exemplifies a model for attention. The natural world in its existential givenness and simultaneously its essentially modified and human-influenced history bring forth a symbolic structure of relatedness (within itself, and between other living organisms), in which the gift of nature and nature-as-gift, can make ethical contributions and articulate an ethics of attention. Larkin’s poetry is ethical (not activist, in Kinsella’s terms) in that ethical interpretations are latent in it; it raises ethical quandaries. These quandaries are present in our culture, visible or not; consequently, latent knowledge can be activated if it is brought under sufficient pressure. Larkin’s writing operates under a ‘scarcity of relation’, referring to the givenness of human life which needs to be re-given, so as not to create sufficiency.

The granularity of Larkin’s lines generates an amazement that embraces the recognition of its ultimate inarticulacy to capture anything but projective meaning. ‘Leaves of Field’ gives us the experience of astonishment, less a Husserlian phenomenological reduction, more a Merleau-Pontian encounter with the essential invisibility or opacity of the visible in ‘a momentary crystallization of colored being or visibility’.23 The subject’s body is part of the being of the visible world. Seeing is thus also being seen.24 Although participatory seeing is realised via reciprocity, ‘the bond with nature is not a neat reciprocity, or a set of mutual obligations, but more an asymmetry of differences’ and ‘dependencies’.25 Precisely because the relationship is so fragile, there is room for a human dedication to nature. Attention then functions as gift, not givenness. Larkin’s writing speaks out of and for a reciprocal and attentive relation to the earth, rather than one of domination and possession. It is ‘a poetry of ecotonal attunement’.26

An ethics of attention carries concretely granular as well as abstractly theoretical knowledge and therefore is indispensible. To afford familiarity with granular details of trees takes patience and, in that way, it can make us see (or imagine) the visible within the invisible, the finite within the infinite, the possible within the actual.27 ‘Leaves of Field’ ends on a temporal progression from autumn to spring: from ‘late leaves’ to ‘early leaves’ – there is a new arrival. This ‘envoi’ with which the poem ‘leaves’ the reader optimistically looks towards the horizon(t)al – but not where we expected it. An envoi as message and dedication is sent, but everything given must be received in order to be ‘fully given’ as gift – and cannot be used up.

  1. Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (New York: Oxford UP, 1964).
  2. Larkin, Leaves, p. 36.
  3. Leaves, p. 36.
  4. Leaves, pp. 13, 18.
  5. Leaves, p. 15.
  6. Leaves, p. 16.
  7. Leaves, p. 16. The poem’s title resonates with the bible’s ‘all the trees of the field shall clap their hands’ (Isaiah 55:12); the trees rejoicing at the Jews’ deliverance from bondage; but Larkin’s choice of ‘fateful’ reveals that even a seemingly peaceful state is ‘fraught with destiny’; the tree’s ‘litter’ an act of bringing forth that has decisive or prophetic consequences. Another reference is Mark 8:24: ‘And he looked up and said, I see men as trees, walking’.
  8. Larkin and Hardy, ‘Less than, more at’.
  9. Harriet Tarlo, ed., ‘Introduction’, in The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2011), pp. 7-18; p. 10. More on ‘radical landscape poetry’: Harriet Tarlo, ‘Radical Landscapes: Experiment and Environment in Contemporary Poetry’, Jacket, 32 (April 2007) (accessed 9 March 2012).
  10. Leaves, p. 31.
  11. Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 120. See also Larkin’s analysis of Harrison in Peter Larkin, ‘The Poetics of Province and Standing Loss in Susan Stewart’s ‘The Forest’’, paper presented at ‘Poetry & Philosophy Conference: Poets Reading Philosophy, Philosophers Reading Poetry’, 26-28 October 2007, at the Centre for Research in Philosophy and Literature, Warwick (accessed 12 March 2012).
  12. Larkin and Hardy, ‘Less than, more at’.
  13. Larkin and Hardy, ‘Less than, more at’.
  14. Larkin, Terrain, p. 107.
  15. Prynne, ‘Huts’, p. 615.
  16. Larkin and Hardy, ‘Less than, more at’.
  17. Leaves, p. 53.
  18. Leaves, p. 21.
  19. Leaves, pp. 51; 56; 33; 17; 17.
  20. Larkin, ‘To Edge’: from Three Conformities of Forest’, Parataxis: Modernism and Modern Writing, 8/9 (Falmer: Parataxis, 1996), 134-39; p. 134.
  21. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 10.
  22. Larkin, ‘Relations’, p. 353.
  23. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, ed. by Claude Lefort, trans. by Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1968), p. 132.
  24. Larkin, ‘Being Seen for Seeing: a Tribute to R F Langley’s Journals’, Intercapillary Space (accessed 3 September 2013).
  25. Larkin, ‘Relations’, p. 358.
  26. Larkin, ‘Innovation contra Acceleration’, p. 173.
  27. Larkin’s notion of possibility as actuality is in line with John Milbank’s; for Larkin’s appraisal of Milbank see Larkin, ‘Review of John Milbank’s The Legend of Death: Two Poetic Sequences’, Intercapillary Space (accessed 12 September 2013).
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