A Weed that Inspired a Poem

Bristly Oxtongue

This plant, now blooming profusely along the east side of the park and elsewhere, has flowers like a dandelion and prickly leaves like a thistle.  It’s neither.  It’s Bristly Oxtongue, a distant relative of the common daisy, and I wrote about it at some length a few years ago.  I write about it again in part because it’s prominent along the path again and park visitors might like to know more about it.

But I write now especially because I found a poem about it, written by a very famous British poet, Alice Oswald, in a book called Weeds and Wild Flowers, published by Faber and Faber in London in 2009 and now out of print.

Oswald does with plants what many fiction writers do with animals: they pretend they’re human characters.  In the case of Bristly Oxtongue, Oswald makes it out to be a shy, unkempt old man with enormous jaws, rutting and feeding by night, hiding by day, solitary, always silent. In the poem, the plant/man is solitary, and Oswald comments, “This is no good.” She concludes, if only he was among his own kind, “that would be good.”

Maybe in Oswald’s England, the plant usually occurs alone.  But in the park, it’s rare to find a Bristly Oxtongue in isolation.  They’re mostly “standing in groups” or “making small clumps,” so in Oswald’s poetic judgment, that’s good.

One may beg to differ; many view the plant as a noxious weed, good neither in clumps nor in isolation. Still, if it inspired a poem, it hasn’t bloomed in vain.  Here’s Oswald’s poem, with a prayer to the gods of Fair Use under copyright law:

It is Bristly Ox-tongue,
too shy to speak.
Long silence. It is Bristly Ox-tongue.

Who stands rooted
with his white hair uncombed.
Long silence.
He stands rooted.

He stands rooted
with his white hair uncombed,
pulling it out in handfuls.
This is no good.

Long silence.
He carries this silence everywhere,
like an implement from long ago,
he carries it everywhere.

This is Bristly Ox-tongue.
Long silence.
He has enormous jaws, chewing on silence.
He has enormous jaws, chewing on silence.

This is no good.
He has come indoors in his boots
and anyhow, his hands are more like hooves.
This is no good.

If only he was among his own kind,
rutting and feeding by night, hiding by day.
Long silence.
I said if only he was among his own kind.

If only he was among his own kind
standing in groups by the roadside
or making small clumps on the cliffs.
Now that would be good.

Translate »