Knot, John Greening, £8.00, Worple Press
reviewed by Pippa Little
Knot certainly fits its title. If you like intertextuality you will relish its many voices and interwoven twists and turns – but you will need some background knowledge of Ben Jonson’s milieu and contemporaries or at least a reference book or Google nearby.
‘The fruit of a month spent at Hawthornden Castle’ – a writers’ retreat near Edinburgh once home to William Drummond and visited by his good friend Ben Jonson in 1618 – the book is divided into two sections: the first is structured to evoke a 17th century knot garden design and involves sonnets, verse letters, an allegorical walk and the poet’s notes on life in the retreat. The second is a modern masque performed by fellow writers in the castle during John Greening’s stay.
There is much to enjoy: a fine control of language, pithy wit, a strong historical sense. Greening is also confident and ambitious in his choices of form: as Greening’s notes state, the masque genre ‘has disappeared completely – unsurprisingly, since masques were expensive, amateur dramatic indulgences for the nobility’ and he is honest enough to admit that writing one now risks parody. He pulls it off: the theme of time allows him some moving contemplation.
I prefer the first section, however. The opening sonnet to M.W. (the poet Mary Wroth, Ben Jonson’s friend) is very pleasing and I also enjoyed the other sonnets to Donne, Marlowe, Campion, Spenser – all with their titles mere bare initials so that a bit of knowledge or research effort is required on the reader’s part. I had never heard of George Gascoigne, the soldier poet who began the whole ‘Virgin Goddess’ adoration of Queen Elizabeth in verse (and who, like Shakespeare, Ralegh and Sidney, is given his name in full in the title and in capitals). I couldn’t make out who S.D. or M.D. were. It feels as if you need to be ‘classically educated’, as Jonson was, to comprehend this sequence in its full complexity.
The poet’s own walk around the Hawthornden environs and its mirroring of Ben Jonson’s longer one (from London to Scotland) form a counterpoint to each other. Ben Jonson searches for new shoes amid the satanic mills of ‘Darnton’ and its rail track to Stockton, realising that these mines, dams and ‘priapic chimneys’ were partly an England ‘he had helped to build not only by laying brick upon brick, but in rallying the ruling classes with masque and song.’ The contemporary poet, as with Ben Jonson well away from his comfort zone, puzzles among charity cyclists and internet cafes.
I particularly like Jonson’s seeing “Nothing of his own” …”except a Shakespeare. Of course a Shakespeare”, in a bookshop, which neatly and wittily encapsulates their rivalry and then the time-slip to “There were, however, volumes by another Johnson: a dictionary, it would appear.”
Knot celebrates a meeting of minds, that sense of common ground between writers, whether in a century of masques or today, in a retreat for writers from all over the world. It questions how poets and poetry can matter and make a difference.