Skip to main content

David Nowell-Smith

Larkin Inside/Beside the Box


In straights they pare against declivity, counter-style any dragless curtain of summit. Not the cover a slope is, but how trees convoke where slippage heeds the dawned bristle of horizon[1] .

Theirs can’t have been a precise leaning of woods, tallness assigns contusion deriving an earth[2] without robbing its buoyancy of poise, a raftered float of gift[3] out of indifference.

Hoisting one unreleasable lamination above earth in a straight stemming of gift? Slant was groundless[4] once the correction of swerve is far bother along root-verve direct, uptake of vertical latch: not bent across chance but a hatch opening desire at proprioceptive edge[5] , abides the stab in orientation but uncut. Do trees feel the staff difference, heal the leaping plane of its inference?

Single jointure between what draws earth’s defigured [6] surface and the approach to a pinned shore: a world[7] deferring to what is too long away from its own differential.

Vertical stride compressed an earth’s way of incline: ditched origin[8] rears a contour-step obtaining a mite of unselect horizon. This lancing tallness is an abridgement of nature[9] , accepts on erect interminability what is each final stem of the offer.

That the naked (scarred) bounce of earth becomes green bar thrown at the newer hiddens[10] . Earth spine from which rooted[11] things fall out, face up along the preventing verticals, no assent is nearer to perpendicular thorn than this anticipation[12] .

Lessways Least Scarce Among, 118-9.

[1]Horizon: borrowed by Heidegger from Husserl to designate a field of orientation which delimits and shapes our dealings with the entities we encounter. That it is ‘horizontal’, as opposed to ‘vertical’, something Larkin’s poem continually explores, is not insignificant: against foundational logic which builds vertically from one premiss to the next Heidegger will oppose a ‘hermeneutic circle’ and the accumulation of spatial figures is crucial to working out what kind of orientation is at issue. Just as it the case here: declivity curtaining summit, but also the horizontal merging of vocables: counter/curtain/cover/convoke, straight/style slope/slippage.

[2]‘Earth’, Heidegger suggests, describes the central, unconcealing, dimension to phusis, the countermovement to the emergence of beings in phusis into presence (cf. OWA, IM). It is art’s engagement with the opacity of its medium, suggests Heidegger, that means that it has privilege in grasping this movement of earth, and by extension the countermovements which open up ‘truth’ as a-letheia (unconcealment). To rethink ecology can only take place through a rethinking of art, is Heidegger’s contention, particularly germane for Larkin’s poetics I would suggest. Moreover, this must be through a grammar of privation—hence, perhaps, the continual neologisms of lack: ‘dragless’, ‘unreleasable’, ‘unselect’ and such?

But also—what would it mean to ‘derive’ an earth? On Heidegger’s terms earth cannot be ‘derived’ either (depending on our reading of this word) because this would be to imply a prior foundational term, or because it would resist the calculative thinking of derivation. But here immediately Larkin’s appropriation of this language diverges from Heidegger: buoyancy and poise imply a wholly different earth to the Heideggerian brute opacity, at least at this juncture.

[3]‘gift’, a term taken up so much more by French phenomenology (Lévinas, Derrida, Marion), is within Heidegger’s terminology the ‘sending’ of being: the means by which a specific interpretation of ‘being’ (of how beings are, and what beings are), first establishes itself as a historical given. This happens, moreover, as a setting-into-relation: the sending of being is the opening of difference; so a ‘gift’ will indeed come out of ‘indifference’. Again, Larkin’s thinking is one not just of citation but of working the vocable: here the recurrent f consonants (raft, float, gift, diff) which themselves both bind and differentiate (note also how ‘raft’ and ‘float’ pun on ‘buoyancy’). But 'float' also introduces speculation, that this gift is being hazarded rather than established; would this introduce a further dimension to this 'indifference', so unlike Heidegger's own insistence on the attuned relation of those entities which appropriate one another (again: Ereignis, appropriation, coming to one's own, to be one's own, becoming-proper...)?

[4]Gift, we are told, stems out from and above earth: this would not look out of place in Heidegger’s reading of Georg Trakl’s ‘Ein Winterabend’. Notable also that earth is both ground & abyss—groundless—and we cannot hope ‘ground’ it. And yet, as he says of the ‘Nothing’ in ‘What is Metaphysics?’, it is only in our encounter with such groundlessness that a search for ‘grounds’ first obtains the power of its demand.

[5]To what extent is this ‘opening’—both an institution of difference and the horizon which permits proprioception, which is to say self-eignen, but also self-jointure (both of which are not a closing-in on oneself but are rather always ec-static—opening on to ‘desire’ at its ‘edge’)—to what extent is it generated as ‘latch’ becomes ‘hatch’, and in the same gesture the vertical gives over to the proprioceptive and orientation, far more complex spatialities? Is the play of the vocables a reflection on the spacing of speechsound?

[6]‘jointure’, as translation for the cognates around fugen: Fuge, verfügen, Gefüge, amongst others, is a term Heidegger employs continually in order to explain how the institution of difference permits the world to cohere—unlike thinkers such as Derrida who followed him, Heidegger realised that the greatest enigma for philosophy is the fact that things are, that ‘there is’ [es gibt, it gives] being. At issue is not simply the jointure by which an entity becomes itself (a kind of proprioception), but also the jointure through which a context for self-showing becomes possible. For Heidegger this involves ‘drawing’ in two senses: ziehen—a relation (Bezug) in which entities are drawn together but also set apart (entziehen), something which points back to his long thinking around the cognates of stimmen (harmonisation, attunement), such that relation requires an initial impulse into relation—but also aufreissen, to ‘sketch’, ‘trace’, ‘design’, in which the entity takes its particular Gestalt: that is, figure. But each figure is both a dis-figuring and a de-figuring, it shows itself only through the concealment of what does not attain figure, what sets itself behind surface (as the necessary outlay of the very construction of surface), and when joined momentarily into a whole; at one further level one needs to grasp the jointure of this temporality of joining-differentiation.

[7]which leads us to deferral, and the deferral-differential punning which alludes to Derrida, and which would suggest that the world we inhabit is always to come. And again we now wonder whether the thinking of temporality and fugitive coalescence at work in Larkin’s poem now exceeds the logic & gesture of citation towards a compressed prose scansion.

[8]to ‘ditch’ origin: remember that in Heidegger’s major account of world and earth what is at stake is precisely finding the ‘origin’ of the artwork, but thereby rethinking precisely what ‘origin’ might in fact mean... but remember also that ‘ditch’ brings together ‘hatch’ and ‘latch’, ‘deferral’ and ‘differential’; that to ‘ditch’ is to reject and yet the ‘ditch’ is part of the ecosystem of wood and incline Larkin traces, something neither particularly vertical nor figuring on the horizon (although perhaps eking out a ‘contour?).

[9]‘abridgement’ of nature is a curious phrasing, as ‘nature’ is itself an abridgement. The term natura would draw together both phusis or ousia, both the phenomena of the ‘natural world’ and the essence of an entity; a strange philosophical shorthand, although when Heidegger returns to these Greek terms to ask what they ‘name’, he suggests that their attention to presencing means that they converge already: phusis is the emergence through which beings enter presence, the movedness that shapes and conditions presencing, whereas ousia describes what in fact presents itself. ‘Nature’, either as translation of the static essence of ‘constant presence’, or as the class of ‘natural’ objects, again static, thus bears the scars of a metaphysics which grasped presence as noun rather than verb. And yet, again: abridgement—a question of what the make absent, what to ‘unselect’, is in conflict with its own ‘interminability’, just as each ‘final stem’ seems to contravene itself—as it becomes ‘final’ it ceases to ‘stem’, to perform that movement of emergence we have already seen figured through the opening of desire, through the raftered float of gift.

[10]‘newer hiddens’ would describe precisely the means by which Ereignis takes place: it is not that things cease to hide, but rather that the relation between what shows itself and what remains concealed shifts; the deployment of earth is always a projection (‘throw’) into unconcealment but not an overcoming of concealment as such. That ‘naked’ should be glossed immediately as ‘scarred’ would resist a particular sentimentalism of ‘green’ attachment to ‘earth’—nakedness does not lead to true self-showing because all showing is necessarily scarred, such is the violence of being wrested into the open (not for nothing does Heidegger’s account of earth and world take place as an appropriation of the Greek polemos).

[11]‘root’ here brings us to the metaphysical crux of Heidegger’s thinking, but also the political danger—and, one might wonder, the political danger for any poetics attentive to the entire valence of ‘roots’: the groundless/abyssal ground of earth leads to a search not only for a foundation, but for the roots of a ‘historical humanity’, which appropriates the earth as ‘its earth’ and thereby becomes a people. The insistence on historical willing and a materiality which refuses to gives itself as such distinguishes Heidegger from the biologism of those Nazi thinkers of race with which he is often associated (again recently, after the publication of the Black Notebooks). But here what is ‘rooted’ (not only: has roots; but also: is static) is unsettled by earth, unsettled perhaps by the ‘spine’ through which earth holds itself vertical. Does this spine then reach to earth's 'face' or is 'face' that of the 'rooted things'? Earlier we saw the defigurement of earth's surface--would this face be one more 'defigured surface'? Is rootedness itself a defigurement of our engagement with earth? This destabilisation is clinched in the crucial slippage in the punning between assent and ascent, especially in the context of verticals and perpendiculars.

[12]and once again, this grasping of our material substrate has to take place in terms of temporality—anticipation recalling the ‘deferral’ and ‘differential’ of previous lines. Indeed, ‘nearness’ (die Nähe, Heidegger writes, is the space of orientation through which we realise our ‘open’ as an ‘open region’ [Gegend]) is here thematised not simply spatially but temporally: to inhabit a horizon is to project forward horizontally, where the harmonisation [Einstimmen] through which mutual attunement [Stimmung] brings beings into accord is continually deferred, continually grasped as movement. The rethinking of spatiality can only take place as an exploration of linguistic time.