Tag Archives: John Greening

“black truths by heart across our thresholds”

To the War Poets, John Greening, Carcanet, 2013, £9.95
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

In a documentary on Belgium’s quirks and mores, the TV presenter Jonathan Meades considered the enduring draw of Europe’s killing fields as a phenomenon he termed ‘death tourism’. If the urge to visit such fields is death tourism, is the urge to bring to life dead war poets through the imagination and epistolary verses between dead and living poets a form of ‘death poetry’? It seems that John Greening’s timely and substantial collection, To the War Poets, is doing much more than offering the reader a cheap and thanatic thrill of re-living death and bloodshed in the trenches and exclaiming the horror. In poems such as ‘To Edmund Blunden’ the speaker considers the horror the legacy of the war has become as a money-spinning tourist attraction:

A far cry from the throng back in the Flanders Fields Museum.
The tin helmet over the litter bin swings in the breeze
beside my metal bench. There are cyclists. And a lady’s
terrier snaps and growls at someone’s knapsack. It is all
… I cough and cough. But not because there’s gas.

I was initially worried that Greening would act in this collection as a necromancer ventriloquist of various famous War poets. The first few poems seem to do this, to mimic the style of poets such as Rosenburg, Stramm and Trakl. Trakl is particularly well captured:

The winter storm’s mad organ playing
is like the Volk’s dark fury,
the black-red tidal wave of onslaught,
defoliated stars.

[‘On the Eastern Front’]

After these initial scene and tone setting poems, the collection deepens into the larger theme of lessons not learned and the looming presence of conflict in society up to the present day. With such grave life and death subject matter it is not surprising that Greening’s tone occasionally slips into didacticism, for instance in ‘Reading John Clare on New Year’s Eve’ the speaker muses upon what will last a cruel and fleeting culture of celebrities:

When we had heard that distant New Year bell,
we would be carrying his black truths by heart
across our thresholds, not thumbing a remote.

Perhaps an intentional intertextual effect of the collection, I felt a number of times I had been in the same place before. In the poem ‘To Siegfried Sassoon’ we see how the television is an electronic juxtaposition of scenes of war which can be instantly changed to brain anaesthetising frivolities like dancing girls and music halls. It is the image of the TV in the corner of the hotel room which reminded me strongly of Ian Hamilton’s ‘Newscast’ where the “Vietnam war drags on/ in one corner of our living room” and where smoke only comes from cigarette puffing heads.

Greening is to be praised for remembering that the poetry of World War One in the English language should not be considered in a purely Anglo-centric light, so it is good to see a poem for Charles Hamilton Sorley. Although this poem reminds the reader of the conflicted Scottishness of the poet, it also celebrates the uniqueness of his contribution to the canon of War poetry:

…on that autumn
night in Loos

when you found a spook
song – Süsser Friede – bursting
from your vanished mouth.

[‘To Charles Sorley’]

Certainly, this is a collection haunted by echoes and revenants, even Robert Graves who is only too painfully aware that according to military papers, he was officially dead in action. Greening is to be praised for marshalling together out of the vortex such a range of voices to come up with a collection that muses on what has changed, if anything, in the centenary century. What is striking about this collection is the sheer vitality and multiplicity of voice – how words and poetry can endure – in the midst of mass graves and war torn lands:

or beneath the hundred thousand crosses
left by men who could never spell
themselves, imagine it grinning from their skulls

or groaning in the pelvic bones of women
who bore it, a surge from this serpent bend
of the river into every green corner.


Richie McCaffery



“how poets and poetry can matter”

Knot, John Greening, £8.00, Worple Press
reviewed by Pippa Little

Knot1Knot 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.

Pippa Little