Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Matthew Sperling & Heather H. Yeung

Notes on Array


Array and its cognates arraying and arrayed occur seven times in Peter Larkin’s Leaves of Field (2004), spread between five sections of the text, beginning on the first page:


(1) PREFATORY NOTE ‘…stalking, branching, trunking and rooting which is what the field as such doesn’t do though all these remain still within its array’ (p. 9) · (2) FIELD OF LEAF, I ‘extrude a wealth of secondary prop dependence onto lean uprights of what will be outcrop-array on its way to internal support’ (p. 13) · (3) LEAF OF TREE, I ‘Field pours array out of leaf particle’ (p. 31) · (4) LEAF OF TREE, V ‘Unsingular particles leaves by means of pre-bed, they don’t float spread through tree, they bear it, intact to its nearer rug branch-rooting. Their loss draws tree toward profile, won’t filter through any depth of their own but wage the whole passage-array, rays of leaf with the bare givens to be supported.’ (p. 39) · (5) LEAVES OF ROOT, III ‘But vouches earth an extent is unfielding the stunned (support) zones of maximal array, that pressure’ (p. 47) · (6) LEAVES FIELD HORIZON, I ‘These phases into shaft, plotting the masks of dip shade material, spell long enough for an arraying of spokes in space to shelter time’ (p. 52) · (7) LEAVES FIELD HORIZON, II ‘Does this curdling of leaf-edge add towards root-patience, though cradling as this is persists hedge in the field array only?’ (p. 53)


It is then carried forward to appear twice in the companion-sequence Open Woods (2005), likewise beginning on the first page:


(8) URBAN WOODS ‘basis for overtaking deals opening trees aren’t arrayed in’ (p. 63) · (9) OPENING WOODS ‘To appraise forest not by arrayed surface but by numbers of intruders it can find the feed of’ (pp. 83-4)


An array is an arrangement of particulars into an ordered pattern or system, often rows or columns; the word entered Middle English in the fourteenth century, meaning ‘order, arrangement’, from Old French arëer, ‘arrange in order’, which ultimately derives from the Latin prefix ad + Frankish *ræd, the source of our word ‘ready’ (Robert K. Barnhart (ed.), Chambers Dictionary of Etymology [1999]).


Larkin’s use of array from Additional Trees (1994) onward is always linked to leaf or branch development and arrangement. Although the use of array with direct relation to tree canopy is a relatively recent one, the links between the image of tree as a display of knowledge and the array which comprises this knowledge can be traced back at least to the tree diagrams of the Liber Floriansis (ca. 1250). The borrowing is made more literal in current botanical use whereby the leaves of a tree are arrayed in order to optimize light-capture and, on a microscopic level, so too are the cells on these leaves (see Steven Vogel, The Life of a Leaf [2012]). As well as being a simple way of explaining the summer tree’s leafy excesses, array becomes implicated in order and potentiality (energy collection and storage).


The progression of array’s usage in Leaves of Tree mirrors the progression of attention in the volume and indeed the progression of canopy growth in a woodland, from array as: (1) visible domain; (2) a potentiality or readiness; (3) a decorative abundance; (4) an ordering; (5) an indication of near-excessive spread; (6) a geometric (leaf-less) ordering; (7) a more general arrangement, to be questioned. By Open Woods, the arboreocentric evocations of our experience of woodland give way to a less orderly observation, and more attention is paid to the surrounding context of the woodland ecosystem, and so array (8 and 9) is negated and must give way to something else. And yet the word is ghost-implicated in its absence by patterns of similar written and audible forms, most notably in Leaves of Field part I, ‘Stalk of Branch’ which gives us, in the space of fifty-odd words, the phrases ‘Palatable to branch away’, ‘assays of atterance’, and ‘the field’s secondary arras’ (p. 21).


Leaves of Field is an arrangement of lexical units into a distinct pattern, and its meaning-making happens in its forms of lateral patterning between words as much as in any statements or pseudo-statements the poem seems to be making. The poem’s appearance as a long justified column broken by section divisions is a kind of array, and the word array’s recurrence is itself an instance of the pattern-formation which creates wholes out of particularities, and thus stands as a figure for the work of how poems such as this create meaning. (It may be worth noting that array is also a word of long-standing importance in the poetry of J.H. Prynne, from ‘Signs or array’ in ‘The Numbers’ (1966) onwards.)


In common usage today, array is most frequently ‘an impressive display or range of a particular type of thing’ (as in Angus Stevenson and Maurice Waite (ed.), Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 12th edition [2012]). While this loose implication of a substantial collection is relevant to Larkin’s use of the word, he also invokes the word’s older senses and its wide range of technical modern uses within many domains, the most obviously relevant of which are biology (inheritance array diagrams), genomics (the DNA array), mathematics (array as basic algorithm), and computing (for instance Shneiderman’s treemaps and Sitarski’s hashed array tree). In each of these domains array denotes a systems approach to the ordering of knowledge. It is an information processing word, which stands for the work of classification and sorting which makes data into information as a structured field. Perhaps the first instance of the confluence of many of these senses is in The Origin of Species (1859) where Darwin describes his ongoing project of data collection and collation in the service of his theories of inheritance as a ‘long array of facts’. Darwin also provides perhaps the first tree diagram to elucidate this ‘long array’. In a letter of 31 May 1859 to John Murray he calls it ‘an odd looking affair, but […] indispensable to show the nature of the very complex affinities of plants and animals’.


The OED entry for array has barely been updated since it was first published in 1885, making it of little use for the modern technical senses. It shows that many of the earliest senses in English are military; the model for concepts of order was the ordered arrangement, equipment and disposition of troops. Array as a data-processing or knowledge-ordering word only arises in the 1800s; the most important development of array – as a computer memory storage system – only came about in the 1990s. Some large questions arise from the word’s history of sense-development. Is the use of array in, for instance, biological classification or computer science, pressed upon by its older uses in the history of military aggression, so that scientific objectivity is haunted by its conceptual associations with violent force? Is it possible to conceive this ordering without recalling reactionary ideas of order which operate on the human or social scale? These questions seem pertinent to Peter Larkin’s ambition to write nature without recruiting it into instrumental uses for the purposes of human subjectivity.