‘Haunted by presences’: the early poetry of Geraldine Monk

 

Geraldine Monk’s contribution to Cusp, the volume of essays she edited on poetry of the 1960s and 1970s produced from outside ‘those two strongholds of poetic power’, Cambridge and London, was entitled ‘A Working-Class Elitist is Something To Be’, archly repeating a charge that had been made against her.[i] In this brief memoir, Geraldine recalls her entry into poetry as someone ‘born and bred factory fodder’ who left school at fourteen.[ii] She describes a childhood whose cultural highlights, apart from the Beano, the Dandy and the Beezer, were the ‘sumptuous Tridentine mass with its ritual, incense, gold and Latin’ (Cusp, 183) – with the gorgeous experience of ‘words without meaning’ (‘Saecula saeculorum’ )  – and the ‘endless reciting of rhymes & chants for our 2-ball wall games’ that were part of the girls’ street play ( a madeleine for the spontaneous memory of my own 1950s’ primary-school playground with its convenient bomb-shelter walls) (Cusp, 184, 183).

Then came television and the ‘delightful silliness’ of Stanley Unwin (Cusp, 184), whose wordplay I found both tedious and highly irritating as a mocking of my own linguistic aspirations. (I preferred the Reader’s Digest exercise, ‘It Pays to Increase Your Word-Power’, that I looked forward to finding at my uncle’s.) Through television, too – specifically the North-West news and arts magazine Scene at Six Thirty – came the liberating impact of the Beatles, who served to put the North West on the cultural map. More important than the Beatles for Geraldine, however, were the Liverpool Scene (Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri). Patten’s ‘Little Johnny’s Confession’ references that same world of comic books, but goes beyond the Beano (‘Biffo the bear’) to American comics (with Disney’s Pluto and DC Comics’ Mighty Mouse), enabled by Liverpool’s links to New York.[iii] The real revelation for Geraldine was Adrian Henri and his long poem ‘The Entry of Christ into Liverpool’. The poem begins with a recognisable (and specific) provincial urban scene:

City morning. dandelion seeds blowing from wasteground.

smell of overgrown privet hedges. children’s voices

in the distance. sounds from the river.

round the corner into Myrtle St. Saturday morning shoppers

headscarves. shopping baskets. dogs.[iv]

This setting of the scene soon gives way to a procession: trumpets, marching drums, Breughel faces, James Ensor masks, Orange Lodge marchers, and ‘the shades of Pierre Bonnard and / Guillaume Apollinaire / Jarry cycling carefully through the crowd.’ What particularly impressed Geraldine and her father were the poem’s pop-art co-option of a current Guinness advertisement that at that time shone brightly over Lime Street. The advertising slogan, ‘Guinness is Good For You’, re-appears in performance as a fractured, stuttering sound poem.

GUIN / GUINN / GUINNESS IS / GUINESS IS GOOD / GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR / GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU

Here is perhaps the origin of Geraldine’s own attachment to the slash as punctuation mark and her interest in the visual possibilities of typography.[v] The slogan does not appear in Henri’s painting of the same name (‘The Entry of Christ into Liverpool’, 1962-64). Prominently displayed in the painting are an advert for Colman’s mustard and the banner, ‘LONG LIVE SOCIALISM’, and the painting carries the dedication ‘Homage to James Ensor’. The performances of this work (along with Henri’s other poems) in the regular readings in the basement of the Liverpool Everyman were part of my own introduction to live poetry.

Henri’s work was a cultural gateway for many working-class teenagers. Through poetry, painting and performance, he generously shared his various cultural interests and enthusiasms from Alfred Jarry to the ‘Talking Blues’ tradition. In her essay in Cusp, Geraldine records how she was later introduced to Gertrude Stein’s work by a sympathetic teacher and her discovery of surrealism, dada, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Edith Sitwell (Cusp, 186, 187). In an interview with Martin Corless-Smith, she observed that ‘Encountering poetry through Dada, Surrealism and Futurism must have had a huge effect on my poetry with regards to spatial and typographic possibilities’.[vi] The encounter with Hopkins and Sitwell no doubt similarly affected her attention to the sonic possibilities of words. Hopkins’s influence is evident in another way in Geraldine’s poem ‘Drivers’ (part of Interregnum [1994]):

spin

can

tin                  chrome

aluminium womb

fine

            tuned in

            to cruise

                        on out

your

            bloody

MIND

that ani …

            mal

                        (mal)

                                    ((mal))

(((warm runny thing    cold unmoving tarmac)))[vii] 

The drivers, going for a spin in their ‘tin / can’ car, are evoked through the internal rhyme on ‘tin’ and ‘spin’ (picked up again with ‘aluminium’). The words ‘spin’, ‘can’ and ‘tin’ then establish a sonic base for ‘fine’, ‘tuned’ and ‘MIND’, while ‘tin’ also provides a semantic base for the associated metals ‘chrome’ and ‘aluminium’. The key word, however, is ‘MIND’. It is the pivot on which the poem turns, and Geraldine here uses a device taken from Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’:

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

 

Here Hopkins exploits the double (and contradictory) sense of ‘Buckle’: to bend and give way and to fasten together. Visually the bird collapses upon itself as it prepares to swoop, but, in that moment, it also most fully expresses its haecceity, its thisness, as it brings together those various aspects of itself that make it a particular thing. Geraldine’s driver is out of their mind (perhaps too ‘tuned’ in) and fails to mind the animal on the road. The succeeding lines imitate that collision: the warning that comes too late (‘ani …’); the animal destroyed by the collision; and a repeated judgement upon the incident (‘mal’, mal’, ‘mal’) – bad, bad, bad. Harriet Tarlo reads those increasing parentheses as ‘the gradual exclusion or marginalisation of the animal presence’ .[viii]  They are also a visual device, like the capitalised ‘AND’ of ‘The Windhover’, that draws the reader into another kind of engagement with the page space. The poem ends with that antithetical balance: ‘warm’ / ‘cold’, ‘runny’/ ‘unmoving’. But those antitheses articulate something more: the coldness of the man-made tarmac contrasts with the warmth of the creature; the coldness suggests a lack of emotion as well as temperature; the ‘warm runny thing’ is the unidentified moving animal that has been hit but also the damaged flesh and blood of the dead or dying animal on the road, where the living but unidentified ‘thing’ has been reduced to an inanimate object.   

Geraldine records, in her memoir, how, she started writing poetry in 1974 and how, once she began writing poetry, she was encouraged to send her work out for publication by Jeff Nuttall (Cusp, 188). Through him she was introduced to Bill Griffiths, who, in turn, introduced her to Bob Cobbing, and encouraged him to co-publish a booklet of her poems.[ix] Griffiths and Cobbing were to remain close friends. Maggie O’Sullivan contacted her in 1979 in response to that booklet and became another part of this supportive network. As Ken Edwards noted, Geraldine and Maggie were to publish a joint manifesto in the London magazine City Limits, which rejected what they regarded as propaganda poetry and concluded, instead, that ‘ultimately, the most effective chance any woman poet has of dismantling the fallacy of male creative supremacy is simply by writing poetry of a kind which is liberating by the breadth of its range, risk, and innovation’.[x]  

Geraldine’s memoir ends with the writing of her first major work Interregnum.[xi] Although this work is not as well-known as it should be, it has been written about illuminatingly by Christine and David Kennedy, Harriet Tarlo and Sean Bonney.[xii]   Christine and David Kennedy take us through the three parts of the book: ‘Nerve Centre’ with its 11 poems about present-day groups using Pendle Hill; ‘Palimpsestus’ with its fragmentary articulation of the experiences of the Pendle witches and what seem fragmentary memories of Geraldine’s own childhood; and ‘Interregnum’, which offers a mediumistic recreation of the speech of the accused women based on the documents from the trial.[xiii] Their essay emphasises the social condition of the witches and the poverty in which they lived; the ‘limited opportunities for working-class women’ now; and the ‘agonised and ecstatic emotional currents’ that flow through the text (Companion, 19, 24). In contrast to the commercially produced, official verse culture, with its ‘personal anecdotes and social observations … largely indistinguishable from the life of feeling obtainable from a range of other cultural products such as films, soap operas, docu-soaps’, they argue, Geraldine’s poetry offers ‘the contemplation of the cultural, economic and political roots of feeling’ (Companion, 25). In the second and third parts, in particular, the poem enacts continuities between the experiences of the Demdike and Chattox families and a contemporary girlhood of ‘Doc Martens’ and ‘devildisco’, continuities grounded in female experience.[xiv]          

Harriet Tarlo’s essay foregrounds the importance of place and landscape in Geraldine’s work, while emphasising that ‘issues of locality, culture, class and gender are inseparable’ in this poetry as evidenced by Interregnum with its investigation of Lancashire’s past through attention to Pendle Hill, an ancient hunting ground, most famous for the witch trials of 1612. As was the case elsewhere in Lancashire, the local people maintained an attachment to Roman Catholicism, and this background of non-conformism was part of the context for the witch trials, although this is not the focus of Geraldine’s work. ‘Good Friday Hikers’, in the first section, presents one of the groups of contemporary users of the location:

We love to go a-wandering

Across this hillside track

With knapsacks filled

with snap

            emergency kits

            Kendal mint cake

On our backs

 

As Bonney observes, these hikers are presented ‘with a naivety and simplicity’, but these opening lines do not ‘mimic the English ballad tradition’.[xv] Geraldine is quoting (and adapting) a song well-known in the period, ‘The Happy Wanderer’:

 

I love to go a-wandering

Along the mountain track

And as I go, I love to sing,

My knapsack on my back.

 

‘The Happy Wanderer’ is originally a German walking song: ‘Der fröhliche Wanderer’ or ‘Mein Vater war ein Wandersmann’. The lyrics were written in the nineteenth century, but the familiar tune wasn’t composed until after World War II. It was recorded by the Oberkirchen Children’s Choir, and was a hit in the UK for 26 weeks in 1954. As Bonney suggests, the rhythm of the original is broken, and Geraldine inserts the likely contents of those knapsacks: ‘snap’ is a local term for lunch or a packed meal (perhaps most familiar in the mining context, where ‘snap tins’ were used to carry the food); ‘emergency kits’ undermine the simple cheerfulness of the song with the reminder of the possible dangers of hill-walking; ‘Kendal cake’ is popular with walkers and climbers as a source of energy. The poem goes on:

we fill our lungs

with fresh and windy air

to warble out our

naming of the

parts

            of nature’s

rambling

incoherence

Fol di raa

 

 Here Geraldine inserts another cultural reference before returning to an anglicised version of the chorus from ‘The Happy Wanderer’ (‘Val-deri, val-dera’). Herbert Read’s poem, ‘Lessons of the War.1: The Naming of Parts’, was included in a popular anthology used in secondary schools at the time. (This was where I came across it in the mid-1960s). It is a parody of British Army training and takes the form of a lecture on the parts of the Lee Enfield rifle (in use in the British Army until 1957). The lecture is interspersed with descriptions of the natural world, presumably suggesting the trainee’s wandering attention:

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the 
breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

As this suggests, militarism is subverted by these glimpses of the natural world and by the erotic innuendoes that these juxtapositions produce. As Tarlo suggests, this intertextual reference brings an ‘erotic impulse’ into the poem (41). If the Good-Friday hikers are as naively happy as ‘The Happy Wanderer’, laughing and singing ‘Beneath God’s clear blue sky’, Geraldine subtly undermines that happiness with reminders of hunger, danger, sexual desire, and war.     

 

II.

Rather than offering a reading of the rest of Interregnum, tracing Geraldine’s engagement with the Pendle witch trials, I want to attend in the second part of this essay to the sonic elements in Geraldine’s poetry. I want to focus on sonic elements that are citations, haunting textual presences, and I want to start with an early (untitled) poem, first published in La Quinta del Sordo (1980). The poem is haunted by the language of religious services. It begins:

We are gathered here today

Because peacocks are pretty birds

And perfect monsters of iridescence[xvi]

The opening line is the opening formula for a funeral or marriage service, but instead of the expected continuation ‘in the sight of almighty God’, our attention is diverted to the iridescent plumage of peacocks. As in Read’s poem, an authoritative discourse is interrupted by attention to the natural world. The following lines ‘the world has stumbled and tumbled viciously’) sounds like the general confession, but, instead of engaging in an act of contrition (‘we shall begin to wail’), the poem seems to offer a boast: ‘we have alighted here today keen and clever / on the fallen margins of space’.  That cleverness is manifested through further scientific allusions: ‘unchangeable germ-plasms / knowing how colours crack’. The reference here is to genetic resources for plant or animal breeding, seed banks or gene banks, and perhaps also optics and the science of iridescence. The religious culture of Geraldine’s childhood is brought in to be displaced by other versions of reality.  

The final part of the poem begins: ‘So all is safely gathered thin and perishing / on its devious route to death’. The opening words echo the Victorian harvest festival hymn, ‘Come, Ye Thankful People, Come’:

 

Come, ye thankful people, come,
Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in,
Ere the winter storms begin

 

In Geraldine’s appropriation and detourning of these lines, however, the hymn’s confident sense that ‘God, our Maker, doth provide / For our wants to be supplied’ is replaced by a glimpse of the ‘thin and perishing’, precisely those whose wants have not been supplied. (The word ‘perishing’ suggests both coldness and death.) As the hymn proceeds, the ‘harvest’ becomes the Last Judgement:

Giving angels charge at last
In the fire the tares to cast;
But the fruitful ears to store
In the garner evermore.

 In Geraldine’s poem, the speaker rejects the ‘devious route to death’ (‘we will not follow such wandering disasters’) only for the final lines to turn on the speaker with self-accusation: ‘we are too smug’.  And the image of the child ‘swinging / happy from this bough’ is pushed up against the more ominous final image of the ‘bony thing’ – perhaps a death’s head; certainly, a reminder of the death that the speaker has tried to ignore.

In another early untitled poem, originally published in Banquet (1984), the intertext is a nursery rhyme:

                        Eating bread and honey Queen

                                    hair spiked and fanning

                        torments

of the four and twenty

done to a turn … (The Sway of Precious Demons, 26)

‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ supplies the Queen ‘eating bread and honey’ and the ‘four and twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie’. But the juxtaposition to ‘honey’ also suggests the queen bee, although the poem almost immediately turns her into a face or court card in ‘the deck of cards’/ (Perhaps the punkish ‘hair spiked and fanning’ is the stylised representation on the card.) The collapse of the deck of cards reveals ‘the ace of death’ (the ace of spades), and the poem ends with the lowest court card, the jack or knave:

Whilst OK Jack Winkle 

 

(twinkling little perisher)

Laughed up his embroidered sleeve

This Jack, laughing up his embroidered sleeve, seems like an ekphrastic response to the playing card, where the Jack is frequently depicted with a very ornate sleeve, curving from the chin of one Jack to the shoulder of his reversed image. But ‘OK Jack’ suggests the expression ‘I’m all right Jack’ used to describe someone who is concerned with only his own interest, while ‘laughing up his … sleeve’ suggests somebody who is secretly amused by someone else’s trouble. All this takes us back to the word ‘surreptitiously’ used earlier in the poem to suggest some concealed drama. Meanwhile, there is some surreptitious sound-play with ‘Winkle’, ‘twinkling’ and ‘perisher’: winkle, which seems to prompt ‘twinkling’, is short for periwinkle, and ‘little perisher’, an affectionate or reproving term for a child or man, seems to have been prompted by that unuttered prefix.  

This mode of composition, through associative leaps and sonic logic, is found again in the Prologue to the volume Herein Lie Tales of Two Inner Cities (1986). The second stanza runs:

this turnings

not for

faint hearters

easy

starters                   jump and

sigh

            crossyourheart and

hope quakers

 

These lines move through neologisms, rhymes, association and, finally the denial of an expected rhyme. The idiomatic ‘not for the faint hearted’ is refreshed by turning the adjective used as noun  into a new noun (perhaps one of the ‘turnings’ the prologue is warning the timid against). The parallel ‘easy starters’, generated by rhyme, seems a second warning to certain kinds of timid reader, who might ‘jump’ with shock or ‘sigh’ at perceived difficulty. They might be readers who want an easy beginning or readers who are easily startled. However, the collocation of ‘starters’ and ‘jump’ also suggests ‘jump starters’ to revive dead batteries. The internal rhyme of ‘heart’ and ‘start’ is picked up with the repetition of ‘heart’ in ‘crossyourheart’, but the expected word ‘die’ – doubly-signalled through the phrase ‘cross your heart’ and the potential rhyme word ‘sigh’ is replaced by ‘quakers’ – not the Society of Friends but another invented synonym for the fearful. The fearful are thus variously embodied in these lines: they have faint hearts; they are liable to ‘start’, ‘jump’ and ‘sigh’; and, finally, they might even tremble. Curiously, the sonic patterns of this part of the poem, the word-plays and the typographically compressed phrases are reminiscent of Roger McGough:

let me die a youngman’s death

not a free from sin tiptoe in

candle wax & waning death

not a curtain’s drawn by angels borne

‘what a nice way to go’ death.[xvii]

 

 However, the next stanzas take us in to very different territory. Beginning with day turning into night, it invokes ‘shape changing’ and moves to:

all things dark and

dreadful

creatures sensed

not seen

Again, Geraldine works with a familiar hymn (‘All things bright and beautiful / All creatures great and small’) and turns it into something very different. The Gothic world of shape changers returns with these ‘dark and / dreadful / creatures’ and becomes even more fearful with the suggestion that these creatures are ‘sensed / not seen’. In a further elaboration, they are neither ‘flesh / nor fish / nor fowl’ but ‘c / reepers’. A popular reminder of the ecclesiastical division of food into categories for the purposes of abstinence and fasting is appropriated for a different supernatural vision, where the breaking of the word ‘c/reepers’ serves to suggest the creepily slow pace of the creeping.      

In these particular early poems, Geraldine detourns elements of a folk culture of religion, nursery-rhymes, popular sayings (trailing their compacted histories) and develops her own fragmented poetics of associative leaps and sonic attentiveness.

 

III.

The title of Geraldine’s essay,  ‘A Working-Class Elitist is Something To Be’, is, of course, another example of strategic intertexuality. John Lennon’s 1970’s song, ‘A Working-Class Hero is Something To Be’, is not a celebration of socialist heroism, but a bitter record of pain – of being made to feel small, of the damage inflicted at home and the different damage inflicted at school, of being confused by the imposed rules and double-binds of a working-class childhood. In this context, Geraldine’s appropriation of the accusatory label, ‘working-class elitist’, is fully understandable.

 

 



[i] Geraldine Monk (ed.), Cusp: recollections of poetry in transition (Bristol, 2012).

[ii] Geraldine Monk,’ A Working-Class Elitist is Something To Be’, Cusp, 182-90, 182.

[iii] Adrian Henri, Roger McGough, Brian Patten, The Mersey Sound (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), 96.

[iv] Adrian Henri, ‘The Entry of Christ into Liverpool’, Collected Poems, 1967-1985 (Alison & Busby, 1986); a performance of the poem (with drums, trumpets, saxophone, mouth-organ accompaniment) is available on the 1969 LP, Bread on the Night (RCA 8057).

[v] For more on this, see Elizabeth James, ‘“Eye-Spy”: Geraldine Monk and the Visible’, in Scott Thurston (ed.), The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk (Cambridge: Salt, 2007), 119-51.

[vi] Interview with Martin Corless-Smith, Colorado Review, XXIX. 3 (Winter 2002), 175-81, 177.

[vii] ‘Drivers’ is the final poem in ‘The Hill People’ section of Interregnum.  

[viii] Harriet Tarlo, ‘“Home-Hills”: Place, Nature and landscape in the Poetry of Geraldine Monk’, in The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk, 28-61, 37.

[ix] Geraldine Monk, Long Wake (London: Writers Forum and Pirate Press, 1979).

[x] Ken Edwards, Foreword to the ‘some younger poets’ section of Gillian Allnutt, Fred D’Aguiar, Ken Edwards, Eric Mottram (eds), the new british poetry 1968-88 (London: Paladin, 1988), 265-70, 268.

[xi] Geraldine Monk, Interregnum (London: Creation Books, 1994).

[xii]Included in  Scott Thurston (ed.), The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk (Cambridge: Salt, 2007).

[xiii] Christine and David Kennedy, ‘Poetry, Difficulty and Geraldine Monk’s Interregnum‘, Cusp, 11-27.

[xiv] Geraldine Monk, Selected Poems (Cambridge: Salt, 2003), 123.

[xv] Sean Bonney, ‘What the Tourists Never See’, in The Salt Companion to Geraldine Monk, 62-78, 66.

[xvi] Geraldine Monk, The Sway of Precious Demons (Twickenham and Wakefield: North and South Press, 1992), 16.

[xvii] Roger McGough, ‘Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death’, The Mersey Sound, 91.


 


 

[Robert Hampson was Professor of Modern Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is now a Research Fellow at the Institute for English Studies and a member of the Poetics Research Centre at Royal Holloway. In addition to his work in Conrad studies (as the author of three monographs on Conrad and a critical biography, as former editor of The Conradian, and as the editor of various editions of works by Conrad), he has also been active for many decades as editor, critic and practitioner in contemporary poetry. In the 1970s, he co-edited the influential magazine Alembic with Peter Barry and Ken Edwards; he subsequently co-edited (with Peter Barry) the pioneering critical volume The New British poetries: The scope of the possible (1993). He has more recently co-edited Frank O’Hara Now (2010) with Will Montgomery; Clasp: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s (2016) with Ken Edwards; and the Allen Fisher Companion (2020) with cris cheek. His interview with Robert Vas Dias, Sounds Anglo-American, has been published as an e-book by Argotist (2020). His poetry publications include Assembled Fugitives: Selected Poems 1973-1998 (2001) and Seaport (2008), and, more recently, an explanation of colours (2010), reworked disasters (2013), which was long-listed for the Forward Prize, and Covodes: 1-19 (2021).]

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