Skip to main content

Amy Cutler

Were X a Tree: Glosses on Larkin

How does, once supposed, the standing tree emerge from a more primary field of leaves? (Peter Larkin)

Peter Larkin is a British essayist, former philosophy librarian, and experimental writer with a cult following. His thirty years of work,[1] nominally about forms of woodland stratification and different tiers of managed and natural space, cuts a ventral space in these woods for phenomenological thought. It has been commented on for its strange structures: Robert Baird has written of Larkin's 'idiolect’, describing parsing the puns in Leaves of Field on the grammatical level `at which Larkin twists his language awry.[2] Jeremy Prynne has also recently commented on his language's relationship to rhizome structures,[3] while Jonathan Skinner has observed that ‘Reading Larkin is like guessing topography from canopy, and entails inventing a whole new method.'[4]

This collaborative book invents a whole new method. It brings together twenty authors' glosses and essays on a range of eclectic Larkin fragments (from clause, to sentence, to block, to page). Orienting themselves within the localised terrain of his linguistically alien 'qualifying canopies',[5] these glosses largely avoid academic norms of review, as well as the conventional stature of literary writing, finding instead a closer, experimental 'petty...shear-line’ thicket of criticism.[6] They open out new 'valves', 'breaches' and 'bypasses’ in his coppiced texts,[7] which are cited in a range of forms, from prose to lyric to interview to prefatory note, as well as from both larger collections and small press chapbooks. The critical introduction explains the choice of title taken from Larkin, as a reference to his use of 'tree regimes'[8] as speculative practice—a form of rhetorical "thinking with" arboreal phenomena, also relevant to the contributors' "thinking with" Larkin's source texts. It will also argue for the necessity of approaching Larkin's work beyond existing academic “enclosures”,[9] following an “ethics of attention” into “lateral exits and extensions.”[10]

These essays draw on a range of non-standard academic traditions of commentary offered in Glossator [11]and other publications, as well as offering examples in visual form of different paratextual critical practices, marginal scrawls, in-text diagrams, and highlighting of the lexical assemblage of Larkin's 'forest expectation sites'.[12] The twenty-five scholars, poets and artists brought together here range from fresh readers to names already associated with Larkin criticism. They use their chosen fragments as 'crucial tiny portals'[13] into more extended discussions of moral and ethical responsibility, European phenomenology, language theory and etymology, management and use-value, involving also ‘difficulty' in innovative and modernist writing, radical pastoral, and syntactical and symbolic paradox.

The eclectic pages offered here, as much as the woodlands they may or may not be linked to, are never pristine sites, but translated, over-written and encroached upon. Like Larkin’s original writings which knowingly exist within the spoiled texts of plantations, assarts and pasture—‘sylva modica, sylva minuta’,[14] the responses develop Larkin’s own interests in textual horizons that resist a ‘hierarchy of the within or the outside’,[15] exploring the doubled palimpsests of the page and the forest. Collections of adversaria, a Renaissance term for scholarly annotations, were first introduced as a cataloguing subject heading in Cambridge libraries in the 1930s. While the term seems to imply combative reading, it actually refers to the ‘topography of the written’[16] in marks on flyleaves, endnotes, and the undersides of pages.

G.C. Waldrep’s ‘Larkin by Inflection: Primes & Fibonacci’ rearranges part of Give Forest Its Next Portent (2014), with the physical fact of the book prompting new colour-coded readings according to prime number ‘array’ and the arranged plant leaves in the Fibonacci sequence: his afternote links this procedure to concepts of ‘bibliomancy’ and forms of devised reading. Carol Watts’ ‘Go Steep,, Trees’ compares the edge-line of trees in Larkin’s ‘At Wall with the Approach of Trees’ (Lessways Least Scarce Among (2012) to colonnades and felled trunks of text in previous poems by Cowper and Hopkins which Larkin used for the basis of his ‘Spirit of the Trees’ (Terrain Seed Scarcity, 2001). Across her own notation, the real twig specimens laid across her Larkin page interrupt it so that alternate strips of text emerge between her ‘poplar branch marginalia’. Sarah Howe examines Larkin’s re-working of a prior text in What the Surfaces Enclave of Wang Wei and notes Fenollosa’s classic metaphor of the Chinese writing system as a tree. Larkin’s versions remain at arm’s length from their Chinese originals, but what carries across is a selective mirroring, not in terms of avant-garde erasure or excision, but as a pleating or interfolding of surfaces.

DIY colouration is used by Robert Macfarlane, his botanical inks marking out the delving ‘roots’ of etymology from the surface ‘leaves’ of the text, drawing on his discovery that the original term for photosynthesis was ‘photosyntax’. His green inks are partially pigmented with plant chlorophyll, while the brown ones are tinged with an extract from root and branch of beech, marking out the botanical and linguistic marking in the partially overgrown or outgrown margins of his annotated text. The resetting of Larkin’s Give Forest Its Next Portent by poet and metalsmith Lissa Wolsak offers a radically re-spatialized text, with its speculative in-text diagrams and sketched planes, reworking splinters of Larkin’s comments on branch inflection points.

The surrounded text and the trails beyond its edge are an explicit principle of arrangement for pieces by Matthew Hall, Stephen Collis and Emma Mason, drawing on traditions for ‘side-texts’ in printed culture from Valéry’s ‘Quelques Fragments des Marginalia’ (1927) to Derrida’s ‘Tympan’ (1972). Hall’s diagram offers a meta-structural guide for reading the second section of Larkin’s ‘exposure (A Tree) presents’ (2014), with selections made from the columnar text, graphically aligning central quotations with the titular tree’s verticality. Breaking the page into epigraphs and asterisms (the three stars traditionally indicating pauses), he offers dialogic cues to elegiac phrases, such as ‘laterally wounded’, and the forms of mourning hidden in the text. Stephen Collis’s looped text of fourteen notations revisits Larkin’s Rings Resting the Circuit (2004) in a series of concentric patterns, bringing together critical and biographical co-ordinates in his circuit of textual notes, visualizing Larkin’s invitation to ‘reading strategy that spirals up and out of containment’. And Mason depicts the doubling of absence and fullness in Larkin’s treatment of Jean-Louis Chrétien’s ‘sacred’, filling the empty margins of the poem ‘praying//firs\\attenuate’ (2014) with her own abundant field of commentary. John Milbank, in a full-length essay, also focuses on this poem, as well as ‘At Wall with the Approach of Trees’ in a concentrated commentary which explores the implicit horizons or ‘call’ of Larkin’s texts as such, from which new horizontals of shade or shelter emerge between branches in contra-distinction to ‘mere flux’. A further essay reminds us that even marginalia should not become too purist. Stuart Cooke works more conceptually with what is implied by ‘blocks of space’ in terms of a complex ecological field also implicating poetics

Matthew Sperling and Heather H. Yeung compile notes on how, in Leaves of Field (2006), the use of the word ‘array’ is linked by Larkin to leaf or branch development, referring differently in each case to orderly and less orderly arrangements, from tree diagrams to the dispositions of troops or justified columns of texts, to data-processing or computer memory storage. Drawing on traditions of specimen commentary or philological notes from manuscript to print, David Nowell-Smith and Daniel Eltringham both offer visual parses of Larkin’s semantic fields. Nowell-Smith builds an architecture of pop-up comment boxes, each linked by an arrow or symbol to a specific word choice. His speculative etymologies, themselves floating outside the text, query philosophies of groundedness, groundlessness and inhabitation in the vocabulary, drawing arrowed pictures of the text’s ideas of our ‘grasping our material substrate’. Eltringham’s ‘Repose and Exposure in Enclosures’ also affords multiple entries into a slice of prose, in this case rearranging the prospect of the page into cut-ups displaying Larkin’s dialogue with the Enclosure acts and his mis-splicing and grafting of pastoral terms with separate roots.

The artist Simon Lewty offers in his scolia-drawing green and black inscriptions of Larkin’s ‘praying//firs\\attenuate’, some in Roman, mostly in a Shelton shorthand-based code, the shapes of which move in and out of legibility and half-rhyme with the known letters. Also investigating readability and the decipherment of non-authorial contributions, Edmund Hardy’s literally mirrored text offers a slant view on legible forest/culture and text/margin thresholds, as well as the paradoxes courted by Larkin’s ‘split sentences’ in the extract from his critical book Wordsworth and Coleridge: Promising Losses (2012), while Natalie Joelle rearranged her Larkin text according to found diagrams and slogans for agricultural gleaning and efficiency in ‘lean theory’. Ian Brinton, David James Miller and Mark Dickinson each incorporate wood specimens to disturb the legibility of their forest/page sites, with Brinton situating the book itself outside the crook of a tree, Miller introducing fir needles to his hand-markings of the ‘silent’ margin, and Dickinson creating new annotations by growing spruce saplings from seed straight through a broadsheet page of the Blue Boat edition of Larkin’s Prose Woods (1985).

Two further contributions embrace the ad-hoc and participatory functions of the gloss or annotation, from Anthony Barnett’s ‘LARK / IN / PEAT’ in which the author’s name is itself subjected to close reading, spliced and drawn into a bird doodle, to Ian Heames’ instructions to the reader regarding the space he has designed for an affixed piece of foil over a box with his chosen quotation from Terrain Seed Scarcity (2001). Heames explains that this strip of foil ‘stands in for’ the collaboration between the life-word of the individual reader and the work in question. He draws attention to the need to approach such ‘unparsable’ moments in Larkin’s texts without throwing up a trellis-work of overmastering method. That would be a kind of mental gardening, Heames notes, and the opposite of Larkin’s aim. Jonathan Skinner creates a new collaged tree-swirl of a poem from pp. 74-5 of Larkin’s ‘Ancient Woods’ (Leaves of Field, 2004) which rewrites a trail over the field of American Redwoods.

Sophie Seita’s reworking of Larkin’s ‘Five Plantation Clumps Near Twopence Spring’ as a musical score for voice and metronome, via John Cage and Sylvano Bussotti, is both illegible and radically impractical. She links this notation of the silent, unplayable margin to hidden breaches and foreclosures in the text: the word ‘rape’ as a measure of the land and a seizure of territory or body. As she states, ‘a gendered response like mine both is and isn’t marginal’ for the word ‘rape’ leaves a stain on the page impossible to scratch out.

Bringing together a team of distinctive avant-garde writers, this collection does not restrict its motives or its readership to the single author study. It aims to offer a lattice of new critical-creative abductions for readers unfamiliar with Larkin's work. The type-set source excerpts are lifted and transformed into new fields of annotation, which offer 'a sort of spoil or awning of negotiation'.[17] Complimenting Larkin's own interest in the constitution of field through vertical and horizontal layers, this book explores the foliate 'horizontals' of criticism across marginalia, collaboration, and cross-reference. Some of the essays research Larkin's botanical, architectural, mathematical, and philosophical investments, and the shades of Merleau-Ponty, John Milbank, Jean Luc Marion, Geoffrey Hartman, and Anne-Lise Francois will ghost across the book, But the surface level terrain will never be abandoned. Each found fragment or splinter of his work here becomes a 'shelter-form'[18] for new thought, in a series of critical affordances. Each of these in turn approaches their materials within the scale of Larkin's own spliced and dendritic 'anti-scapes'.[19] In this book, trees—and marginalia—become the juncture of new philosophical, literary, environmental, and collaborative thought.

[1] More recent publications include Terrain Seed Scarcity: Poems From a Decade (Salt, 2001), three pamphlets from The Gig in 2004 (Rings Resting the Circuit, What the Surfaces Enclave of Wang Wei, and Sprout Near Severing Close), Leaves of Field (Shearsman, 2006), Lessways Least Scarce Among: Poems 2002-2009 (Shearsman, 2012), Imparkments (The Surrogate Has Settled) (Veer, 2012), Give Forest its Next Portent (Shearsman, 2016), City Trappings (Veer, 2016), Introgression Latewood (Shearsman, 2017) and a critical text, Wordsworth and Coleridge: Promising Losses (New York: Palgrave, 2012).

[2] Robert P. Baird, 'Peter Larkin, Leaves of Field', Chicago Review, 53,1 (Spring 2007), 186-8.

[3] Prynne, J. H., 'On the Poetry of Peter Larkin’, No Prizes, 2 (2013), 43-5.

[4] Jonathan Skinner, 'Thoughts on Things'. Poetics of the Third Landscape', Eco Language Reader, ed. Brenda Iijima, (Brooklyn, NY: Portable Press at Yo Yo Labs and Callicoon; NY: Nightboat Books, 2010), 9-51 (35).

[5] Skinner, ‘Thoughts on Things’, 35.

[6] Larkin, Peter, Sprout Near Severing Close, Poem 4, (Toronto: The Gig, 2004), [unpaginated].

[7] These terms are taken from Larkin’s ‘Urban Woods’ in Leaves of Field (Exeter, Shearsman, 2006), 61-70.

[8] See ‘Urban Woods’, 66.

[9] Larkin’s first publication was entitled Enclosures (Galloping Dog Press, 1983).

[10] Sophie Seita, 'The Ethics of Attention in Peter Larkin's 'Leaves of Field", Cordite Poetry Review online (2013):<>

[11] Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary, available online at

[12] See Larkin, ‘Urban Woods’, 67.

[13] Punctum Books, 'About' <httal/punctumbooks.corniabouti>

[14] Larkin, ‘Open Woods’, 73.

[15] Larkin, Rings Resting the Circuit (Toronto: The Gig, 2004), [unpaginated].

[16] Giuriato, Davide, ‘Folded Manuscripts: Walter Banjamin’s Marginal Writing’, in Dirk Van Hulle and Wim Van Mierlo (eds.), Variants 2/3:Reading Notes (New York: Rodopi, 2004), 197.

[17] Larkin, 'Prefatory Note’, Leaves of Field, 9.

[18] Peter Larkin, Lessways Least Scarce Among, 82.

[19] Larkin, Lessways Least Scarce Among, 72.