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Reading ‘Couch Grass’

Reading ‘Couch Grass’

The association of couch grass (Elytrigia repens) with the tenacious world of the living is emphasised by one of its country names, ‘quick grass’ or ‘wicks’ from the Old English word cwic, (‘characterized by the presence of life’ O.E.D.). The word’s association with both the living and loss is not only to be found in the Apostle’s Creed (‘the quick and the dead’) but in the opening section of the Old English elegy, ‘The Wanderer’: ‘None are there now among the living [cwicra] / to whom I dare declare me thoroughly, / tell my heart’s thought.’

It recently struck me that one of the clear associations between English poetry of the seventies and the American influence of Charles Olson can be found in John Hall’s beautifully produced volume, Couch Grass (Great Works, 1978, produced in an edition of 200 copies). As all gardeners know, couch grass spreads its roots underground and is almost impossible to eradicate. Like the tangled ‘nets of being’ in Olson’s ‘As the Dead Prey Upon Us’ these roots  remain below the surface to thwart and constrict our actions and John Hall’s poem opens ‘you choose the life or the life chooses you / what you have become being that kind of person / you do not owe yourself to the others / how could you / be sure any capitalist notion of the self / has you as the debtor / if you accept the story the part is fixed’. For Olson any attempt at escape from these nets, the untangling of the webs of inheritance which bind us, is the act of the moment: ‘Purity / is only an instant of being, the trammels / recur’ and our lives are made up of the interwoven nets which precede us, moving below the surface, prompting who we are. Towards the end of his poem Hall points to ‘A sense of incompleteness’ which ‘keeps you from saying / you have finished’ and as the poem closes he accepts the living centrality of the movement of couch grass by pointing to the classification of the plant as a ‘weed’ by those who cannot accept the intricate complexities of which we are made up:


weeds are quite simply

what the single-minded don’t want

and poison re-inforces their point of view



The other poem by Olson which I found myself wanting to put alongside John Hall’s is the short 1950 piece which Fielding Dawson refers to in his The Black Mountain Book, ‘These Days’:


whatever you have to say, leave

the roots on, let them



And the dirt


Just to make clear

where they come from


The text of John Hall’s poem can be found in the selected poems, else here, published in 1999 by Nicholas Johnson’s Etruscan Books. Both ‘These days’ and ‘As the dead prey upon us’ can be found in The Collected Poems of Charles Olson, University of California Press 1997.


Ian Brinton



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