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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



Nicholas Johnson’s Cleave

Nicholas Johnson’s Cleave

Waterloo Press has recently published a reconfiguration of Nicholas Johnson’s astonishingly powerful and important poem, Cleave. What started out as an Arts Council commissioned book in 2002 with the subtitle ‘The Debateable Lands’ (dealing with the 2001 outbreak of Foot and Mouth) has become a collection of poems which sing and resonate with a depth of perspective and a new authority. As I wrote on the blurb for this handsome new edition these poems cut through the world of political expediency with a sure understanding of the pragmatics of destruction.

Meg Bateman’s comments at the beginning of the volume are absolutely pertinent:

Cleave is a highly imaginative and experimental poem, a cry from the south west to north east of rural England, which has sustained man since the last ice-age. It has no thesis, no moral argument: rather it is the disorientated response to something completely abhorrent. The culling of farm animals in the infected areas and their buffer zones may have removed the slur of disease from British livestock, but the disease is fatal to neither man nor beast. As much as the skies, the water-ways, the sunsets, and the blood-soaked fields, it is ourselves who are polluted by the process.’


Etruscan Books has also just put out a typically professional piece of craftsmanship with Carlyle Reedy’s collection of poems, Epos. For those of us who recall Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars, British Poetry of the 1970s and the Battle of Earl’s Court (Salt 2006) the close analysis of Reedy’s ‘isle of sheppey’ poem brought into sharp focus the sense of the effect of natural forces on human objects. As Lee Harwood puts it ‘The poems are like spells. There are things one can’t fully understand, can’t explain, but somehow trusts.’


These two books are a must for the New Year.

Ed Dorn Collected

Ed Dorn Collected

Two nights ago I was fortunate enough to go to the book launch for Carcanet’s new Collected Poems of Ed Dorn hosted at the London Review of Books. The volume itself is terrific: nearly 1000 pages of one of America’s most important post-war poets edited with care, and attention to detail, by Jennifer Dunbar Dorn, Justin Katko, Reitha Pattison and Kyle Waugh.


Iain Sinclair introduced the evening and there were readings from John Hall, Tom Raworth, Justin Katko, Nicholas Johnson, Tom Pickard, Gordon Brotherston and Jennifer Dunbar Dorn.


The volume itself is the first attempt to collect almost all of Dorn’s massive range of writing and it is an impressive feat. It has appendices that include Bean News as well as Prefaces and Commentaries from individual volumes of the poems as they appeared.  ‘Afterwords’, one by Amiri Baraka and the other by J.H. Prynne are included as is a particular favourite poem of mine that was only published in Cid Corman’s Origin 13 (Summer 1954), ‘Relics from a Polar Cairn’, which I wrote about in PN Review 163 in 2005.


Also on sale at the launch, and as if a timely reminder of Dorn’s enormous output, was Etruscan Book’s Westward Haut, another superbly presented publication from Nicholas Johnson’s press. This book contains a couple of pieces that are not in the Collected and it can be obtained by going to

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