The Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson A Review

bgmcoverThe Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson, Uniformbooks 2015, ISBN 978 1 910010 04 4, £9.50.

In the autumn of 1962, two American poets arrived in the UK to begin an extended visit. They spent that winter in the Lake District, in the footsteps of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Their spring included a trip up the Wye valley, again retracing one made by the journal writer and her poet brother. Later they spent some considerable time in Blake’s London, getting to know many of the capital’s younger artists and writers in the process. They also met many of the country’s surviving Modernist writers, including Basil Bunting, Hugh MacDiarmid, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Geoffrey Grigson, whose writings were to be a strong influence on Johnson. The visit also included trips to Samuel Palmer’s Shoreham and to Southwell Minster to view the Green Man carvings.

The poets were Ronald Johnson and Jonathan Williams, and The Book of the Green Man was the fruit of their travels. The poem, Johnson’s attempt ‘to make new the traditional British long seasonal poem’, follows the solar year, beginning in winter and ending in autumn, and circles around themes of fertility and renewal, both natural and cultural. Johnson balances tradition, as represented in a quote from Thoreau in his notes to the effect that ‘[d]ecayed literature makes the richest of all soils’ with a distinctly Poundian approach to making it new.

In an interesting Afterward to this edition, Ross Hair points up parallels with two other 20th century long poems, Eliot’s The Waste Land and Bunting’s Briggflatts. Like Eliot, Johnson is concerned with fertility, but his is a more optimistic vision than the older poet’s. Like Bunting, Johnson builds his poem around the yearly cycle, but where Bunting is concerned with an individual life, with the passing of the year representing his own youth and age, Johnson’s annual passage is less personal, more universal, an eternal recurrence.

The winter section opens to the song of the river Rothay, just as Briggflatts begins with that of the Rawthey, a remarkable if probably fortuitous echo. Johnson borrows William Wordsworth’s image of the hills around Grassmere as a wheel, seeding his poem in ‘this soil, once/Wordsworth’. And despite the season, the soil, but actual and literary, is not dead but latent with life, vivid words:

I entered the architecture of

bees – the gold of

their mossed bodies

linked in warmth.

I followed

the patterns of waters

within earth,

& saw the whorls of buried

shells.

I followed the mottled lizard into

scrolls of leaves

& traced the plover to its

nest.

Johnson talks of two ways of seeing, William’s visionary mode:

who could not see

daffodils

only

And Dorothy’s particular eye for the detail of:

lichens & cushions of

moss,

who saw

these lakes

in all their weathers—

As the poem unfolds, it is clear that Johnson’s own eye is closer to Dorothy’s than her brother’s.

Spring opens with an evocation of the Green Man himself, with Johnson weaving fragments from or allusions to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Robert Herrick’s Corinna’s going a-Maying, Harlein MSS 5900 and various other texts in an exemplary instance of Johnson’s use of the Poundian ideographic method.

`Rise, and put on your foliage’.

Come, as the Green Knight to Gawain at the beginning
of the new year. . .

out of his oaken crevice:
lhude sing cuccu!

Move with a spring & vegetable swiftness,
seed-case & burr & tremulous grasses, a grove. . .vocal in the wind. . .

(`the rustling of the leaves and
the songs of birds denoting his presence there’)

cuckoo!

(`at thes day we in ye
sign call them Green Men, covered with green bones’)

cuckoo!

(`I have listened to the cuckoo in the ivy-tree,
I have listened to the note of the birds

in the crest of the rustling oak,
loud cuckoo’)

cuckoo!
cuckoo!

Rise as the sun: antlered. . .
bearded with greenery. . .the leaf-vein pulsing

in your throat. Budded all over with small flame, & motley
with birds in your hair & arms. Rise,

& put on your foliage!

The Green Man is an image of fertility and the natural cycle of unknown origins, whose iconographic representation is typically a disembodied head from whose mouth flows foliage and verbiage. Johnson, correctly in my view, traces him back to the Gawain poem, and it is likely that he is older still, with roots in the myths that lie behind the head of Bran in the Mabinogion and the beheading ritual in the Irish Fled Bricrenn. On one level, The Book of the Green Man is an early example of the ecological British counter-culture of the late 60s and early 70s rediscovery of ‘green’ folklore and myth. The Incredible String Band’s 1971 film and album Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending is one example. Another, later, instance is The Book of Herne by Eric Mottram, one of the younger British writers that Johnson got to know on his trip.

pgreenmanThe remainder of the spring section, describing the poets’ trip up the Wye, is rich in imagery of fertility, with even the river itself being predominantly green. As well as evoking William Wordsworth’s visit to Tintern, Johnson draws on a range of other writers: Kilvert, Whitman, Gerald of Wales and Edith Sitwell amongst others.With the summer section, the narrative thrust of the previous seasons gives way to a more meditative mode, a sequence of moments of attention to the green world in all its summer glory. At its heart are the Green Man carvings at Southwell:

a kind of greening speech comes from those mouths

all but winged – each leaf
cleft & articulate.

Autumn sees the poem move to Shoreham and the pictorial world of Samuel Palmer, with more than a passing nod to Blake and Kit Smart. Found text extracts on William Stukeley’s living ‘Stonehenge’ and Pope’s topiary become concrete poems, a reminder of Guy Davenport’s remark that ‘[i]f a poem has ever occurred to Mr. Johnson, he has never written it’. Johnson made poetry out of language wherever he found it, with no concern for the niceties of the lyric ‘I’.

Fittingly, the poem turns full circle. Palmer’s visionary paintings reflect William’s way of seeing, but his eye for detail, for moss on a cottage roof, for instance, is Dorothy’s. As the poem draws to a close, birdsong echoes the Rothay and Johnson’s extemporising on A WHITE CLOUD, a Palmer painting, recalls the winter daffodils and a poem that was, in effect, a collaboration between the Wordsworth siblings.

The Book of the Green Man is an important poem, a major long poem of the 1960s that has been out of print for far too long. Colin Sackett’s Uniformbooks are to be commended for bringing it back into circulation in a format that is both handsome and serviceable. It’s impossible to do justice to a work of such richness in a short review. Really, there’s only one thing to say. Read it.

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2 thoughts on “The Book of the Green Man, by Ronald Johnson A Review

  1. Thank you for this fine review, and I’d like to amplify your enthusiasm. This was, in its original Longmans edition, the first book of contemporary poetry I bought, and you’re absolutely right about the cultural moment – I was obsessed with The Incredible String Band. There’s a history to be unearthed (the right word) which unites Thomas A Clark with Robin Williamson of the ISB, Greenock contemporaries at school – and Clark was published by Jonathan Williams and a frequent guest at Williams’ Lake Distinct home Corn Close. Ronald Johnson’s poem points forward also to Iain Sinclair’s early books. Now I want to get hold of Johnson’s cookery books.

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    1. Thanks, John. Yes, the wider cultural moment is ripe for investigation, or unearthing, rather. I’m also thinking about the Alfred Watkins to John Mitchell to Iain Sinclair line at the moment. And Richard Long fits in there, too.

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