Knot by John Greening

“The various strands are braided together with careful, beautiful subtlety. Now we are reading a poem to Shakespeare, Sir Philip Sidney, George Gascoigne or one of their contemporaries, like M.W., F.G. or C.M., whose identities we are encouraged to work out from the initials and internal evidence (here, Mary Wroth, Fulke Grenville and Christopher Marlowe). Now we are following Ben Jonson on his famous 1618 walk to visit Drummond of Hawthornden. Now we are reading snippets from Greening’s daily Hawthornden journal. The effect is at times rather like flipping between the lively chat of Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ and the chiselled shards of Hill’s Mercian Hymns.

The close weaving of “Knot” makes it hard to suggest its qualities in representative extracts. In the wonderfully supple poems, the poets are treated as colleagues being brought up to date since their “golden age”. Sidney is told about “The Herbert franchise,”, told that “these are art / because we’ve no idea what art is any more.” Gascoigne learns that “the poet embroidering in his i-Phoneless tower will not be / volunteering for Afghanistan or heading off to Gravesend, like you.” Jonson’s walk becomes “an allegory”, a journey through time before being greeted at Hawthornden by the poet himself. In one reader-teasing passage, a bewildered Jonson picks up Lives of the Poets in a bookshop, can’t find his own name, and none of the other names seem familiar: “Yalden, Broome, Sprat, Garth, Stepney, Fenton, Hughes…” […] Knot is a miniature masterpiece.”

Harry Ricketts, The Warwick Review   Purchase Knot

Knot certainly fits its title. If you like intertextuality you will relish its many voices and interwoven twists and turns…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… 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, Elsewhere: a review of contemporary poetry

“As John Greening tells us in an introductory note to Knot, in 1618 the forty six year old Ben Jonson travelled on foot from London to visit William Drummond for a month at Hawthornden Castle in West Lothian before walking all the way home again. Greening takes this as his historical cue for writing a wonderful mixture of forms (both poetry and prose) about his own experience of spending a month at the same Castle on one his writers’ retreats. Sojourns of this kind may seem more the occasion for writing work that has its genesis elsewhere than in the writer’s retreat itself, but Greening is exceptionally deft with the material, marrying past and present in an effective mix that seeks to return ‘artifice’ to its fully positive Renaissance meaning of carefully crafted art. Indeed, the chapbook’s title refers back to the ‘knot gardens’ of the same era, intricately woven in decorative patterns. But there is nothing purely decorative about the work here. The poet creates an interesting weave of journal entries on his stay in May 2010, with sonnets, quatrains and tercets of various kinds addressed to Jonson’s contemporaries, such as George Gascoigne, Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Ralegh and even William Shakespeare.

And interwoven into these elegies for a lost appreciation of beauty and art (so terribly unfashionable!) is a crisp prose journal that beautifully captures the contemporary scene of life outside and around the Castle. The whole meditation is rounded off by a ‘Masque of Time’ which the seven Fellows at Hawthornden put on at the end of their stay and which again contrasts the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of art and artifice.

N.S. Thompson, Stand

“Attitudes to poetry in different times are also considered in John Greening’s Knot. This is an unusual and original collection in two parts. The first part mixes impressions of Ben Jonson’s visit to Hawthornden Castle with Greening’s own reflections on being a Hawthornden Fellow in May 2010. These prose paragraphs are interspersed with sonnets and ‘verse letters’ addressed to some of Jonson’s contemporaries like George Gascoigne and Walter Raleigh. The second section is a masque – a stylised dramatic form which is probably unfamiliar to many contemporary readers but one which at which Jonson excelled….

I have already referred to Knot as a ‘short’ book; and at 47 pages it probably merits this description. But with its passages of prose and some fairly long poems the pages do not feature very much white space and so it is not a book which is short on content. The first section plays intriguingly with time as the author’s own twenty-first century thoughts are set alongside facts (and fancies) about Jonson and his milieu. The poetry in this section is cleverly crafted. In particular the sonnets skilfully mix a period feel with modern references….

Greening’s taste for punning…is indulged more broadly in a contrast drawn between an empty can and a brimming can’t or in the remark that there is no music in bones in the glue factory. Only horse voices. Which is surely a testimony to the inventiveness and energy of this unusual collection.”

Thomas Ovans, the international online cultural magazine