Monday, 12 July 2010

Bizarre Connection


   One bizarre connection resonated for me in the peculiar story of Raoul Moat's "stand-off" with police and subsequent demise on Saturday. Barbara Ellen in The Observer wisely pointed to how "Moat embodied the almost-nuclear frustration of the failed male - ego-driven, soured, festooned with the trappings of cliched machismo". And talking of failed males, apparently a pissed Paul Gascoigne turned up during the evening with a fishing-rod and a can of beer to try a proper bloke-to-bloke talk with the gunman!
   Anyway, the watercourse that Moat lay and sat cross-legged by as he spoke for six hours to police-negotiators with a shotgun against his own neck was in fact the River Coquet, surely the same Coquet that Basil Bunting refers to in a line which has both baffled and enthralled me for years: "Stones trip Coquet burn" (10, Second Book of Odes).
    Bunting was, of course, born in Northumbria and lived there again during his latter years (this poem is dated 1970). The line is so intriguing because  - if you don't know that Coquet is a Northern river  - it borders on the opaque, gesturing towards a kind of "concrete" approach whereby phonetic language-properties are foregrounded over semantic ones. The fact that each of the four words can be read as having more than one grammatical function furthers this effect: for example, "stones trip" seems to echo the idiomatic collocation "stone's throw", whereas "burn" could be read as a verb. (If "trip" and "burn" were both read as counterbalancing verbs, one might detect a trace-memory of the syntax of Hopkins' wonderful opener: "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame".) The four stressed syllables (out of five)in a row like this is also unusual and emphasises the dense sound-quality of the line, dwelling on the interplay between sharp t-sounds and the long vowels of "stones" and "burn".
     The French loan-word "coquette" also has a meaning in English of course: a flirtatious or invitingly-playful woman. My former (tentative) reading of the poem was that it was about a girl or woman the narrator was following through a stream or river - I now see in a Damascene moment of illumination (afforded by Raoul Moat!) that Bunting is personifying the river ("burn" - a word also used in Briggflats - is more accurately a dialect-word for stream or brook but we''ll let that pass), playing on the near-homonymous link between "coquette" and "Coquet".
     In fact, the poem seems fairly lucid now, as well as being beautiful, and one wonders to what extent Bunting was aware of the ambiguities he was setting up in writing that amazing first line. My hunch is that, being a poet so attuned to the acoustic aspects of language and so keen for readers to "trace in the air a pattern of sound"(Intro. to Collected Poems), the effect was intentional: the line works in very different but equally valid ways according to one's recognition of "Coquet" as a geographical river. Not knowing this fact doesn't harm one's appreciation of the poem and in fact it could be said has kept me returning to it over the years. As Wallace Stevens wrote, "The poem should resist the intelligence almost successfully."
    I've also just realised that Bunting is doing the same in this poem as he did at the magnificent beginning of Briggflats - "Brag, sweet tenor bull,/descant on Rawthey's madrigal" - where Rawthey is another North-Eastern river, in this case personified as a singer. 

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