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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



Benjamin and Blake In Cambridge

Benjamin and Blake In Cambridge

I have just been reading Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Unpacking My Library, a Talk about Book Collecting’, published in Illuminations (Pimlico 1999). Writing about the palpable nature of book collecting he says ‘what I am really concerned with is giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection. If I do this by elaborating on the various ways of acquiring books, this is something entirely arbitrary. This or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.’ This emotional and physical connection between the collector and his possessions is something recognised by any book collector. Are there not many of us who still sniff the pages as we open up a well-known copy that has been on our shelves for years as if in imitation of Edward Thomas who shrivels the ‘grey shreds’ of southernwood before sniffing them and thinking, trying ‘Once more to think what it is I am remembering.’

The mysterious relationship between object and ownership! Benjamin points to the ‘most profound enchantment for the collector’ being the ‘locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed, as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.’ This talismanic sense of the importance of the object took me back to my little 1905 Pocket edition of George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft where he referred to his small library, battered from many house-moves, in terms of each book’s individual nature: ‘I know men who say they had as life read any book in a library copy as in one from their own shelf. To me that is unintelligible. For one thing, I know every book of mine by its scent, and I have but to put my nose between the pages to be reminded of all sorts of things. My Gibbon, for example, my well-bound eight-volume Milman edition, which I have read and read and read again for more than thirty years—never do I open it but the scent of the noble page restores to me all the exultant happiness of that moment when I received it as a prize.’

Benjamin suggests that ‘Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the [book] collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that; the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them become criminals. These are the very areas in which any order is a balancing act of extreme precariousness. ‘The only exact knowledge there is,’ said Anatole France, ‘is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books.’ And indeed, if there is a counterpart to the confusion of a library, it is the order of its catalogue.’

And so where to put my recently acquired copy of Ben Watson’s Blake in Cambridge  or ‘The Opposite of David Willetts’ (Unkant Publishers 2012). Do I catalogue it on the shelf alongside E.P. Thompson whose superb book on William Blake occupies the centre of the Zappa expert’s focus? Or does it sit better on the shelf with J.H. Prynne since the last chapter of Ben Watson’s scurrilous, energetic, vital prose is devoted to ‘A Mixed Cheer for Kazoo Dreamboats’? Any informal and non-library cataloguing system says much about the library’s owner. In what might appear to be some confusion on my shelves I think I know where everything is according to my individual association. At the moment Ben Watson is staying upstairs with Prynne rather than downstairs with Blake.

Ian Brinton

Andrew Duncan

Andrew Duncan

Two new books from Shearsman bring some lost or uncollected work of Andrew Duncan back into the public eye and both are startlingly immediate to the eye and mind.


Threads of Iron is Andrew’s lost book: not because it was never published, but because it never appeared as intended. Instead, the original was split into two and was published in two parts by Reality Street Editions (in 1991) and by Shearsman Books (in 2000). Another part of the manuscript was cut and became Sound Surface; this latter manuscript is part of In Five Eyes, published simultaneously with this volume.


Three of the poems from Threads of Iron were first published in Grosseteste Review 15 (1984-85), Tim Longville’s last issue of the finely produced magazine that he had started along with John Riley and Gordon Jackson in 1968. ‘The Poet and the Schizophrenic’, ‘Visitors to Art Galleries Considered as a Branch of the Fine Arts’ and ‘Turkish Music’ appeared alongside work by William Bronk, Tom Lowenstein, Andrew Crozier, Nick Totton, Philippe Jacottet, Rosemarie Waldrop, Stephen Rodefer, Ian Patterson, John Wilkinson, Peter Riley, Peter Robinson, Michael Haslam, Rod Mengham, Roy Fisher, Anthony Barnett, John James, David Chaloner and more…and more…


and they were followed by ‘A letter to Andrew Duncan’ by J. H. Prynne, a short extract from which appears on the back cover of this Shearsman publication:

‘Seeing this sequence as a large, articulated work, put into its sections and with the culminations of a sustained amplitude, I esteem its achievement very highly.’


As a matter of further interest and connectedness it is worth noting that the first issue of SNOW is due out on Friday:

SNOW 1 is published on Friday and will be sent out to contributors and those

who have already bought the issue by Saturday.

SNOW is 80 pages. All contributions are previously unpublished.

Prose and poetry by Michael Haslam, Rosa van Hensbergen, Peter Hughes,(Petrarch), D S Marriott, Alistair Noon, Joseph Persad, Denise Riley,

Peter Riley, Keith Sands (Mandelstam), Nick Totton, Juha Virtanen,

Nigel Wheale, James Wilson.

An etching dated 1975 by Gisèle Celan-Lestrange; a 1983 letter by J H Prynne

substantially about Paul Celan and translation; music scores by India Cooke,

the late Leroy Jenkins, Dave Soldier; film, photography and other work by

Sung Hee Jin, Alexis Nishihata, restaurateur Alex von Riebech, Aya Toraiwa;

a drawing of Hélène Cixous reading at the 1979 Cambridge Poetry Festival.


SNOW is available only direct from the UK publisher. Issue 1 is priced at

£10 incl. mailing or euro12 or US$19 incl. airmailing. Payment can be made

to PayPal ID or by sterling cheque payable to Anthony Barnett.



Anthony Barnett, Ian Brinton, eds.

Allardyce Book

14 Mount Street, Lewes, East Sussex BN7 1HL


Poems of Yves Bonnefoy

Poems of Yves Bonnefoy

Ian Brinton & Michael Grant’s Poems of Yves Bonnefoy 1 has just appeared from Oystercatcher Press, the award-winning pamphlet publisher. These translations of Bonnefoy, the French poet and essayist born in 1923, interestingly differ from others in what is essentially a post-Heideggerian world. They delineate the separateness of the poetry of anguish, the bridge between light and darkness that comes after destruction.  Here there is silence after death, destruction, loss of God and the slow emergence of the eternal in the human voice, in bird song, in the forests of trees and memory and the healing of spring and fruit. ‘No beauty no colour detains’ this poetry that insists upon its own purity. It is the poetry of an uncertain quietness into living communication that considers ‘those processions of the light / through a land without birth or death,’ and the path to a new world.  There is a depth of voices coming out of the wilderness that is illustrated in the poem, ‘To the Voice of Kathleen Ferrier.’


I celebrate the voice merged with grey

Wavering in the distance of a lost song

As if beyond all pure form

Another song trembled, absolute, alone.


Here the translators indicate the loss of the song rather than the singing and thus the message rather than the medium. I immediately hear Ferrier’s contralto singing ‘Blow The Wind Southerly’ or Gluck’s ‘What Is Life?’ and recognize that sense of urgency coming out a generation that experienced personal loss during the Thirties and Forties and somehow have to find a way forward. One can sense more than a simple melancholy in her voice in Mahler’s ‘Das Lied von der Erde.’ Such elemental and eternal depth resonates in these carefully enunciated poems and spin off in disparate directions.

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