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Ian Heames

‘From unshorn opportunity leave the site scarce-adorned’: Image and Text in Peter Larkin’s Poetry


From unshorn opportunity leave the site scarce-adorned


 Before reading, affix here a strip of aluminium foil


One word abundant in Peter Larkin’s poetry is scarcity. Its complexion as a marker of conceptual work, of how the human apparatus finds its figured bounds (and what within), is patterned out across repeated usage in a kind of echo-location. The word evolves across returns, the sign of an idea complex being mooted at thresholds and reporting back. See, for instance, ‘from Scarce Norm Scarcer Mean’ in Terrain Seed Scarcity, 6 from which the facing quote is taken.

This essay will attempt a brief discussion of the facing line, and a short defence, based on a limited extrapolation of Larkin’s notion of ‘scarcity’, of the decision not to attempt a more extended gloss. I’ll then hazard some more personal reflections about reading Larkin’s work, or rather thinking about it away from reading; thoughts which relate to the space left to affix a piece of foil in the box under the quotation.

First, the line – the last line of a poem (poem iv) in a sequence of eight short pieces. Its central imperative ‘leave’ supplies a conclusive tenor. This is supported by the two concluding dactyl-like structures (not dactyls since they have longer terminal than middle sounds), of which ‘leave’ contributes the long syllable of the first. The vowel sounds in the two ‘dactylic’ sets conjure up a pleasing exit phonically. The patterning of vowel sounds across the two similarly structured three-part units of stress/duration, to my ear creates two occasions of mirrored rise and fall. First: ‘leave’ and ‘scarce’ (eee ; air) Second: ‘the site’; ‘adorned’ (dur-eye ; dur-or).

‘leave the site scarce-adorned’. Eee; dur-eye : Air; dur-or. These features combine to make this line more overtly tuned, in terms of the torquing of vowel sounds, than is typical for Larkin. We might therefore want also to stress the ‘tune’ embedded in ‘opportunity’, given the invitation the word itself represents.

I sketch out this music of the line, as I hear it, ahead of offering a paraphrase of its somewhat abstract propositional sense, because the more than usually orchestrated sonic interplays at work here appear to be licensed by the peculiar notion of ‘adornment’ of which the line treats, related in the compound ‘scarce-adorned’ to Larkin’s ubiquitous notion of scarcity. The final word ‘adorned’, is set up to resonate sonically beyond the dactyl-like structures just mentioned. It partly rhymes with ‘unshorn’ earlier in the line and also picks up the long sound of ‘support’, which concludes the previous line of the poem, with which the final line forms a kind of arm’s-length couplet. I won’t discuss this previous line, or quote it, for reasons cited later on.

Part of what makes the facing line conclusive, beyond its play of sounds, is its more than usually extractable propositional sense, which I would paraphrase as follows, with the caveat that to do so may tidy up potential slippages and indirections that remain the line’s prerogative to comprehend.

From out of (or by means of) [From] a condition of plenary potential – one having to do with the implied natural setting’s affordance (or even offer) of meditative encounter (this psychical resource stressed more so than exploitative resource use) [unshorn opportunity] – exit this place/nexus of encounter, either (a) yourself in state of heightened attentiveness to various meditative openings or angles (cf. the pun on sight/site) that your thinking there entered into, or (b), in a more fanciful conceit, leaving behind you a sort of tracery of engrossed attention, imprinted lightly on the scene even as you absent yourself as a constituent of it [leave the site] [scarce-adorned].

The ambiguity that allows the ‘site’ to be ‘scarce-adorned’ in and of itself, away from the viewer, can feasibly be channelled back into being a feature of the experience of the exiting percipient, as their finely adorned and attuned perception, or ‘sight’, transmutes the no longer present scene into the domain of memory, or fortified familiarity with a practice of attention. The after-image that the line conducts casts a musical and apophthegmic emblem out of the perception of present liveliness that leaving the site concludes. The image is not exactly visual, although a visual/spatial idea may assist in thinking it; it is more like the amulet of a felt complex, highly abstract, but amenable to re-inhabitation via practices of intuition. Setting these modes of inference into a recoverable form seems to be what the poem (or at least this concluding line) is for. The inevitable turn away from the relational delicacy of being in the moment in the landscape itself leads into a different set of finely tuned, fluid and suggestive calibrations in the casting of a line that maps those regions of experience onto the resources of ambiguity, abstract activity and musicality that subsist in language.

Having said all this, I would struggle to give the same kind of reading to a lot of Larkin’s lines. I chose to focus on this one because its densities of statement-like sense unfold more readily, to my mind, than I usually find possible with his work, and do so in concert with an unusually heightened musical patterning. The whole effect causes the line to stand out in a way that recommends it for close reading, albeit of a sort not necessarily replicable in any given case.

As an instance of close reading of Larkin’s work, this brief discussion of a single line is therefore necessarily tendentious. It elides ‘reading’ with the spooling out of felt densities of subjective orientation, mapping these onto musical and syntactical values that blend to calibrate a range of propositional options, under the control of an implied speaker. Such an orchestrating subject, at such an explicatory angle to the text matter, is one I encounter only scarcely in Larkin’s poetry.

The line I covered enters my encounter with the poem at what for Larkin’s work seems to me like an uncommon angle onto thetic sense; a scarce moment within field effects less susceptible to being read off. But this scarcity also feels like a guiding part of what this kind of offered vantage means; like part of its nature. The lock-on focus of thetic sense, however subtlized, is just one facet of what reading cares for, especially in poetry, and especially where the work’s abiding effort is to treat of phenomena without throwing up a trellis work of overmastering method. That would be a kind of mental gardening – the opposite of Larkin’s aim.

Moments of distillation, however abstract, should not be sought at every turn; their schedule is necessarily more impromptu, or they wouldn’t be the focal features that (for me) they are. Wherever the word ‘scarce’ occurs in Larkin’s work, for instance, I find myself more proximate to an orienting structure of ideas, in the light of which more persistently unparsabe passages are then inflected.

If every line of Larkin’s were in fact readable in the same way as I’ve just attempted to read the above example, his work would, I confess, convict me of a lack of stamina and a lack of insight: I just can’t read these poems in the manner of the line above other than by flashes. It may of course be the case that a more alert and sensitive reader could offer a close reading that moved effortlessly across whole poems, pointing out the micro-operations of their architecture line by line. It would be a joy to see such a reading, but I’m skeptical as to whether the poems really even move to make that ideal of plenary reading available. Areas of propositional sense seem instead to shade off into thickets of phrasing marked by their resistance to being cognitively sounded out, as if there had always to be such a thing as following the whole way.

Theorising felt gaps in sense so that they become operative at some level of remove in a paraphrasable scheme or project, which can then be announced as comprehending all of the poem’s strategies and materials, would only be a way of anodizing delicate matter; readying the text surface for some overall gloss. Areas of resistance are more usefully to be left to their own devices; sifted for the different kind of quasi-thought that is the experience of reading them. Explaining them into consonance with some other aim only skims over the experience of difficulty they otherwise comport.

The bits I can’t make sense of in Larkin’s work offer their resistance to the moments of complex discursive ramification discovered elsewhere. But no poem is obliged to be a digest or report, and none of its features have to earn their precise keep within an economy of knowledge transfer: they can simply be.

To take further this licence for the work – or rather the experience of the work – just to be on its own terms, I come (by and by) to the bit of foil. Oftentimes, with all kinds of poetry as well as other art, I find that a large area of thinking about the work isn’t directly engaging it at all. It happens away from the page, or other primary site, and draws on an undetermined mass of things more or less related to the work in question – the memory of poems read, the shape and feel of particular books, readings and recordings and conversations, all kinds of secondary and borderline irrelevant concerns drawn into a general raft or volley of impressions. This hazy, shifting, over-all sense of a body of work, or of a given poem, isn’t necessarily something that can be conveyed with accuracy, beyond the fact that any reader will presumably have their own version of it. Its contents are in any case not especially amenable to being made the focus of critical discussion, being necessarily a collaboration between the lifeworld of the individual and their own personal exposure to and understanding of the work in question. The strip of foil on the other page stands in for that aspect of how my impressions form. It may soon be the only thing you remember about this essay.

Especially in light of the discursive statements that frame certain of Larkin’s works, his poetry seems guided by an ethos of thought formation that involves relating the glanced or fleeting details of being in a landscape to the elsewise (and more restricted) modalities of locution and text. This is a roundabout way of saying his work is about writing about landscapes, and what it feels and means to report on their perception, though this attempt at a simpler paraphrase puts too much pressure on the condition of reflexivity (thinking about thinking; writing about writing), which appears to be less a central drama of the work than the mark of its accommodation with the thousand dialogic fronds that shade off back and forth behind the scenes of something alien becoming utterance, being sounded into the poem.

Larkin seems to want his words to arrive along pathways of introspection the world could hold open. The patina of his texts is not descriptive (or only glancingly so), neither do they seem to turn upon dilemmas about how to be the human sponsor of a record charting other agencies than our own, on some vegetable behalf. His work seems instead, to me, to be about an intimated continuity of expressive resources with that which, at least to us, can only be spoken for; the non-human landscape of trees and other plant communities. Whatever finery of networks we discern in trees and forests, their signaling, whatever it is, is not our version of it. Nevertheless, a kind of relational awareness seems to be proposed that would graft some particles of human speech onto organic structures from distantly other reaches of the living world.

Glimmers of alert resistance to any attitude towards landscape that would defuse the absolute complexity of alien modes of being are what I get from Larkin’s poetry. A phrase like ‘scarce-adorned’ is almost all I feel qualified to hold onto. That feeling is a slender aid to understanding, but it does still seem like a kind of amulet – a way back into playful rigors of imagination. Hence, insupportably, the foil in parallel.