Blocks of Space, Strings of Body: entries into ecological fields
Perhaps what is most apparent in work like Leaves of Field is the modulation of prose and verse. Of course, these alternations are pronounced at the end of the book, but in other work such as ‘Turf Hill’ (from Slights Agreeing Trees, 2003) there’s still a clear typographical distinction between different kinds of utterance, whether this be the expositional mode of the dominant blocks of prose, or the open-ended final lines, itemised by columns and in smaller font, which, with their recurring rhymes and incomplete gesticulations, are quite analogous to the verse fragments in later sections of Leaves of Field:
: any remissions of pylon is real scene, the contrition of sealed by diverted green (from ‘Turf Hill’)1
transfocal setworks clothed in signs of in- coming periphery, less desymbolized than strips of rolling the forest
(from ‘Moving Woods’)2
These alternating prose and poem modes produce a marked friction in the work. On the one hand, the prose blocks are notable for the continuous streams of granular, notionally specific phrasing. As Sophie Seita writes of the title poem, the evocation of a process of particles produces a powerful tension: “[Larkin’s] non-lineated blocks of prose… 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…”3
As much as they refer to the “specifically granular”, however, Larkin’s prose blocks ultimately betray or overwhelm any notion of the specific: invariably they refer to the plural, to groups of trees, of leaves, of coordinates. There is something about the Euclidean geometry of the justified prose that demands it fill all available space, rather than echo from a single object in a field of view. The liquid capacity of this prose – its capacity to pursue and fill crevices projecting in all manner of directions – is reflected in the grammatical formulations, as Seita so aptly demonstrates:
Because auxiliary verbs, pronouns (except ‘we’/‘us’) and narrative linearity are scarcely present, and because explanatory conjunctions remain minimal… [a]ttention is directed at the granular… This specificity, generated by abundant description, contravenes as well as supplements the abstraction brought by article-absence. Neither the abstract nor the specific impulse is prioritised.4
The supple-vening, or the contra-menting, of the abstract in Leaves of Field describes a kind of porosity that the late poet and critic Martin Harrison identified as a central feature of a contemporary poetry. Without Seita’s ‘narrative linearity’, there is, using Harrison’s words, “no end point, there is no mechanism working towards a single sort of telos or motive.” For Harrison, the absence of a pronounced telos creates a form of “spaciousness” in contemporary poetry that is “the readerly equivalent of Whitman’s famous statement: ‘I take part… I see and hear the whole’.” Indeed, the nomenclative similarity between Leaves of Grass and Leaves of Field can’t go without mention here. When neither the abstract nor the specific is prioritised, when the teleological imperative of an ending is avoided in order to attend to an ongoing exploration of an opening field, we end up with the generalised spaciousness so typical of Larkin’s prose blocks: equally absent are particular personalities (and their bodies) and transcendent theorems that stretch across multiple forms in an effort to collate them seamlessly.
This is a kind of environmental poetics, to draw on Angus Fletcher’s notion of the environment poem,5 where the poet seeks an equivalence with the natural world, rather than a graphic representation of it. As Harrison writes, a “mixed, complex, non-teleological grammatical and prosodic form acts, in some way, as the equivalent of the ramifying structures in which a natural world is built.” When the equivalence between poem and world is structured accordingly, “[p]rofuseness, proliferation, the fertility of psychological link and mental association form the poetry’s texture”.6 The ‘psychological link’ is important to my purpose here, because it illuminates the way that, despite such drive towards proliferation, Larkin’s poetry is also modulated by a relationship of the field to the body – or, less phenomenologically – by a relationship of the field to the mechanism by which it is perceived and arranged in poetic terms. This finds clearest manifestation in the latter sections of Leaves of Field, namely in ‘Open Woods’ and ‘Moving Woods’, where the prose blocks are regularly interrupted (manicured?) by tightened verse fragments framed by cream-white page space.
There are problematic implications here: namely, that the proliferating field of a forest can be divided into smaller sections by furrows or fences of short verse; or that our own readerly comprehension of a ‘landscape’ in the work is to do with our colonisation of it: Larkin’s landscape, in the words of Jonathan Skinner, “is not so much a thing as a process, a kind of prosody marked by opening (which the prose poem enacts through clearings of verse) and by colonizing, to a rhythm not necessarily human.”7 Because of its frequent, grammatically unsettling gestures, the poetry is constantly proposing a space in which only a part of the ‘reading act’ is to do with semantic comprehension of human experience; at the very same time, another part of ‘reading’ here is to be made aware of the possibility, however hazily envisioned, of non- human linguistic expression. In other words, language is being prised open, or expanded, to account for what, at least in its most prosaic form, it is not built for: to complicate, rather than communicate, to make seen what cannot be seen. That a prosaic forest space is regularly ‘off-set’ by series of fragmented verses draws attention to the kind of enclosures that are evoked within the poems – most principally, those enclosures that are incomplete, and probably incapable of being fully ‘enclosed’, and those that tend towards a point of completion but which, because of due deference to the former, are left incomplete.
I should return briefly to consider again the nature of the language in the blocks of prose and in the verse fragments. I’ve already mentioned how the prose is granular and non-particular in its focus, but it’s also easy to notice that – despite the unusual syntax – the punctuation is quite conventional. On the other hand, the verse fragments are devoid of punctuation marks, but their syntax is generally closer to common usage. On this basis, one can assume that these verse sections reach towards an alignment with human speech, or that they are transcriptions of it. The prose, on the other hand, bears all the marks of a printed, machinic language, which, in its genesis in the non-human, is our entry into ecological poetics. Read in these terms, therefore, there is a recurrent impulsion towards closure in the poems of ‘Open Woods’ and ‘Moving Woods’, where ‘closure’ denotes a heightened focus upon the singular, human body – that locus of sense and meaning in the great myths of the West. When Larkin refers to the verses as “opens” that come “like ecological insertia”8 we might ask what, exactly, are these ‘insertia’ being inserted into? The answer, of course, is an indelibly human field.
At any rate, poems like those in ‘Open Woods’ chart an ongoing transference, from an experiment with a disembodied or post-human, post-grammatical poetics to a more embodied, lyrical understanding of the nature of poetic utterance. Whether we see this as an admission of the inadequacy of the primary experiment depends on whether or not we see the prose and verse texts as interconnected, or as one usurping (or rescuing) the other. At any rate, the work is notable for its evocation of instability: both in its indications of the origins of language (in the human? or elsewhere?), and in its extension of language towards the limits of the human voice, and of semantic efficacy. When ecocritical commentators talk about the capacity of poetry to not only “supplement the rational intellect” but to provide “inherent and sometimes incommensurable forms of insight”, they might be referring to an archetypal poetics, or they might be referring to the poetics of Peter Larkin. His deliberate evasions of the syntactical requirements of prose inflected with intense moments of lyrical cognition provide something of the “different, subtler, and more complex expressions” that ecocritics seek.9
Yet it would be too provincial a gesture to isolate Larkin’s work in the somewhat fashionable language of ecocriticism. Following Harrison’s discussions concerning a contemporary poetry, we might read Larkin not only with attention to ideas of landscape and ecology, but also in terms which place Larkin within a poetics that seeks a form, or forms, of coherence across many variable and inherently unstable domains:
Coherence within shifting statistical structures, completeness across a field of various possible narratives and descriptions, an act of perception constantly open to the world and one which does not set up a barrier between utterance and perception, a tracking of sense across a complex act of memory, a sense of the tacit recognition of structural similarities across and between differing orders of aesthetic experience: these appear to be some of the key intentional formats, the motivations, which influence the aesthetic structuring and performativeness of a modern poetry. Associated with all these issues is… the persistence of the exterior form of writing with its tendency towards a stability at odds with the complex movement of perception in time.10
As part of Harrison’s formulation, we would group Larkin with other poets like Michael Farrell, Jorie Graham and Tomas Tranströmer. Together, there simply is no way to understand these poets in terms of conventional critical categories. Rather, for Harrison it would be the way in which the linguistic act is, for each of them, a kind of persistent search for stability in the face of what is otherwise a complex, shifting form.
Indeed, despite Harrison’s long-term residence in Australia and his frequent anthologisation as an ‘Australian poet’, he was born in England in 1949 (three years after Larkin) and didn’t leave for the Southern Hemisphere until the 1970s. Given the developments in his later work in particular, and how it resonates with much of Larkin’s, allusions to him in this context can be illuminating. Of this later writing, Harrison wrote:
… I want to create an interplay between compositional structures which seem non- overt and possible, even randomized or unfocussed, and other structures contoured by a more lyric formal intent. In part this is done in order to propose a sort of suspended awareness of how, in the poetry, things may go one way or may go another; but in part this is done in order to detain or delay too quick a resolution of the experience of the language within a formal structure (whether as prose fragment or as contoured stanza) and the enhance the sense of expressive immediacy.
A composition aim was thus to maintain, as far as possible, a sense of an immediate connection between compositional process and the ‘finished’ outcome of that process, as if each poem is just finished or is just about to be finished… an aim to maintain a permanent openness between cognitive richness and the language-act, the one never completely exhausting the other.11
The cross-overs with some of Larkin’s concerns are fairly obvious, and I don’t need to explicate them at length. Rather, as an alternative form of demonstration, I’d like to exhibit an extract from one of Harrison’s later poems, which I include here as a form of ‘branch’ that extends from, or touches upon, one of Larkin’s own:
Double Movement 12
No meaning to this wave’s presence or its impact: it rides in and over corrugations and inlets, over gulleys.
Like something which is stretching, like something which is being tightened, it draws the skin away from the bones, it pulls the face away from the teeth. It stiffens a twig no less than it hardens a dead animal’s pelt. You touch what is soft and it has the brittleness of porcelain or crude, baked clay. From this point on, what stands out are
the scars and runnels, details and small clefts, grazes and abrasures. Microscopic rock falls and dust cascades: this incinerating blanket of shelterless sunlight makes everything easy to dislodge. Convection walls of heat stream upwards from rock surfaces. But then, take your breath on this slope — stopping among its thin scattering of casuarinas and eucalypts — and look around at where, everywhere, it’s as if invisible contours have been revealed, almost as if a tide, far from arriving, has gone out and you can now see the timbers of long ago fallen trees, the small reefs which are stone outcrops, areas which make entrances, others which make shelves. A litter of dead, straw coloured grasses is what’s left of covering for the ground
“Contours gets revealed as if the earth is sagging down over the ground’s frame, rocks and fallen logs suddenly visible”
“In the back of the mind, each flicker of wind gets picked up for a hint of rain or fire — studied, turned over, tossed away — given up for being one of those wandering curlicues of air which intense heat brings on”
“They can breathe round you, those small wind-rushes … like a straw tickling your ears or your arms”
Expectation builds on drifts of high-up cirrus. A single angophora branch hangs out, zig-zagging like a lightning streak. It seems to move
1 Larkin, Peter, "Turf Hill," The Ground Aslant: an anthology of radical landscape poetry, ed. Harriet Tarlo (Exeter: Shearsman, 2011). p. 65
2 Larkin, Peter, Leaves of Field (Exeter: Shearsman, 2006). p. 97
3 Seita, Sophie, "The Ethics of Attention in Peter Larkin's 'Leaves of Field'," Cordite Poetry Review (2013). p. 1
4 Seita, "The Ethics of Attention in Peter Larkin's 'Leaves of Field'." p. 3
5 See Fletcher, Angus, A New Theory for American Poetry: democracy, the environment and the future of imagination (Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 2004).
6 Harrison, Martin, "On Composition: five studies in the philosophy of writing," Ph.D. Thesis, University of Technology, Sydney, 2010. p. 142 (Forthcoming from Vagabond Press in 2015)
7 Skinner, Jonathan, "Thoughts on Things: poetics of the third landscape,")((ECO(LANG)(UAGE(READER)), ed. Brenda Iijima (New York: Portable Press, 2010). p. 37
8 Larkin, Leaves of Field, p. 93
9 Gander, Forrest and Kinsella, John, Redstart: an ecological poetics (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012), p. 3
10 Harrison, "On Composition." pp. 143-4
11 Harrison, "On Composition." p. 190
12 Harrison, "On Composition." p. 194. A slightly earlier version of this poem appears in Wild Bees: new and selected poems (University of Western Australia Press, 2008; also published in the UK by Shearsman).
Fletcher, Angus. A New Theory for American Poetry: democracy, the environment and the future of imagination. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.
Gander, Forrest, and Kinsella, John. Redstart: an ecological poetics. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2012. Print.
Harrison, Martin. "On Composition: five studies in the philosophy of writing." Ph.D. Thesis.
University of Technology, Sydney, 2010. Print.
Larkin, Peter. Leaves of Field. Exeter: Shearsman, 2006. Print.
---. "Turf Hill." The Ground Aslant: an anthology of radical landscape poetry. Ed. Tarlo, Harriet. Exeter: Shearsman, 2011. 63-5. Print.
Seita, Sophie. "The Ethics of Attention in Peter Larkin's 'Leaves of Field'." Cordite Poetry Review
Skinner, Jonathan. "Thoughts on Things: poetics of the third landscape.")((ECO(LANG)(UAGE(READER)). Ed. Iijima, Brenda. New York: Portable Press, 2010. 9-51. Print.