A beautifully-done new edition of Ronald Johnson’s classic--EP: “A classic is classic . . . because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.”--book-length poem, The Book of the Green Man, has just been put out by UK-based publisher Uniformbooks, with a fine afterword by poet & scholar Ross Hair (author of Ronald Johnson’s Modernist Collage Poetry, a pioneering study of the poet’s work).* There is nothing in this edition, whether in design or setting, that does not lend itself to immediate commendation. A pleasure to have in-hand.
This is a poem so fine it moved Harold Bloom, craggy rejector of many beautiful things (he has even tossed out much of Whitman as bad poetry), to write a fan letter to the poet (“I don’t know that I’ve ever written a fan letter before this…”). Johnson’s former lover / poet-partner / conspirator-in-conjuration Jonathan Williams found it so wonderful he chose to quote its closing lines--”ecstatic reverie”--in a memoir of the poet.** It is perhaps the poet’s “most accessible” work, renovating one of the most permanent of the tradition’s forms, the seasonal poem. As such it fits perfectly alongside Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender***, Vergil’s Georgics, Thomson’s Seasons, Bunting’s Briggflatts (published one year before Green Man), and a hundred others. And as with Spenser, one of Bunting’s favorite poets, the given-form allows a wild invention. (The same can be said of Pound’s Propertius, a poem which functions in relation to The Cantos as the Green Man does to ARK, though in the Homage it is the given original Pound works from.) The formal innovations of Pound, Olson, Zukofsky, Duncan, and others--quotation, the luminous detail, the derived and variegated montage, rhymes of all kind--come to play with the visionary company of Samuel Palmer and the Ancients; Blake, Stubbs, and Grigson; the diaries of Dorothy Wordsworth, the poems of her brother; the naturalist investigations of Francis Kilvert, Gilbert White, and Thoreau (among others); the works of Edith Sitwell (I think of Rustic Elegies here, having a copy in my room, a book of many splendors); etc. Johnson, as in all of his work, steals mercury from wherever it lies best. The reader is in familiar territory but with a strange weather all about. (Oz is nearing here.)
I won’t write of the poem’s compositional background--it has been well written of in several places, including briefly on the Uniformbooks site****, as well as in essays in the Joel Bettridge and Eric Selinger edited collection Ronald Johnson: Life and Works (essential reading alongside Hair’s Collage Poetry), and elsewhere--but to say Johnson lived and walked for a time in the land from which he wrote his poem, much as John Alec Baker did to write his astonishing prose masterpiece The Peregrine (a book to set with Thoreau on the highest shelf) or Peter O’Leary his Whitmanian extravaganza Phosphorescence of Thought. In all three--Johnson, Baker, O’Leary (a disciple of Johnson’s)--the work comes from a generative practice focusing consciousness to meet the imaginal, be it by bird-watching, translation, quotation (an eclogue--selection: is it the wren I hear?--of reading), or search for all things “most rich, most glittering, most strange” (a poem-title in the “Autumn” section Johnson took from a Time magazine article—a quote from Gustave Moreau). Johnson’s poem reads as “lived” as anything by Villon yet with the additional quality of feeling that one may walk headlong into a lost Méliès or Spenserian garden.†
I cannot tell you how much I wish this book were in every hand in the world. No more “uglier to the airport"‡—Attention! bring in Arcady. The sight, sound, and intellection found in this book may be enough.
* Hair’s book can be found here: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/ronald-johnson's-modernist-collage-poetry-ross-hair/?k=9780230108691&loc=us. (Expensive there. I found it through interlibrary loan.)
** Can be read in full here: http://jargonbooks.com/rjobit.html.
*** Johnson and Spenser both delight in the strange-bodied apparition of the archaic: “Of Certaine White Nights Wherein the / Darkes Doe Seem to Gette Up / & Walk & How Wee Saw Divers Wonders in Bothe / Earthe & Element” (“Autumn”, third part); the epigraph to the whole book: “Then cam four grett wodyn / with four grett clubes all in grene // & skwybes / borning . . .”.
**** http://www.colinsackett.co.uk/thebookofthegreenman.php?x=43&y=6. I refrain from quoting from the book here as it’s well represented on that page.
† Vide the notebook pages Johnson kept of his walks: http://www.thing.net/~grist/ld/rjohnson/rj-gm-nb.htm.
‡ Title of a great Guy Davenport essay taken from Zukofsky.