Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Rain by Don Paterson

This book response is written in the form of a short story. For a discussion of why I am trailing this approach to writing about books see my review of In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut.


It started in The Gambia. Or came to a head, there, anyway. One or the other.

Walking along a dusty road overlooking the ocean and discussing poetry. From shanty town to boutique hotel like the evocations of privilege they were.

“I don’t get it,” she said.

A disappointed scoff from her companion. “I’m sick of hearing people say that,” the poet replied tersely. “People are scared of poetry and I don’t understand why.”

She could give no adequate response. So she closed her mouth and changed the subject. She didn’t read poetry. She read novels. How could she explain why one form of marks on a page made sense and another didn’t? How could she explain that she was scared of poetry; that it seemed to require a higher plane of comprehension than she possessed? They changed the subject and walked on. Tension wilting under the sun that scorched white their combating views.

**

Back in the UK she started a new job. Working in literature; still not ‘getting’ poetry. She attended readings, programmed poets, sometimes even introduced them, too. But never read any. Poetry was West Berlin in the 1950s, walled off from the rest of literature surrounding it. It made sense, somehow, to assign these labels, despite her otherwise conciliatory nature. It was one of those hypocrisies of character she didn’t think to question.

**

This is a story of the crumbling of that wall. But there was no storming or smashing; no momentous moment to witness. No gatekeeper received an order to lift the barrier and allow the inevitable to pass peacefully. This wall crumbled without resistance, gradually, over the course of months.

The catalyst for change was money. A grant for the development of a programme to improve the teaching of poetry in schools. Teachers were recruited. They amassed and sat around a table. A poet – a cross between a soldier and missionary and yet nothing like either – entered. He said that poetry was like running. Both were things we did in childhood, and lost interest in as we grew older. That school had a stultifying way of making both seem difficult; more like work than play. Focusing on what they said, rather than the feelings they engendered.

“Poetry,” the poet declared and she paraphrased, is a personal thing. “A work either speaks to you or it doesn’t. If it does, and you enjoy it, then it is good. If it does not, then move on to something else.” She nods some more and goes home. Permission. Something inside has shifted. Her head as yet unaware what it means. She has always been inordinately influenced by what people say.

Later, she hears a quote from Samuel Johnson and assimilates it. “The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”.

Yes, she thinks. That is what the poet meant.

**

Somewhere amidst these words she understands something she had not before. It was the word ‘poetry’ she struggled with, not the form. The word ‘poetry’ that had skulked around inside her, distorting her impressions of what it was. A red blanket cast over a genre, designating it other; making trust difficult.

How preposterous, she now thinks. How judgemental. She is embarrassed and confused at her readiness to categorise.

Almost at once, it is as though that wall rolls over onto its side, vast slabs of concrete chromatically shifting from grey to yellow brick.

**

Months later she leaves work and walks the cold streets with a collection of poetry in hand. It is winter. The sun sunk hours ago. The bar she settles in has a Victorian feel. Lamps ensconced on walls, red candles dripping lava down old wine bottles. Upstairs, there’s a sense that a séance may begin at any minute. The lights are dim, almost too dark to read. She unfurls in a corner.

And she reads. The words stand up to greet her, images like shadows moving around, whispering to her.

We talk, make love, we sleep in the same bed –
But no matter what we do, you can’t be me.
We only dream this place up in one head.

‘The Day’

Gulping, she marks passage after passage. She reads as she would read prose: confidently, taking each word as it comes, unfussed by line breaks or meter. Experiencing them. Nothing more or less. They make her laugh, sometimes. Cry, sometimes. Other times she merely smiles at the Robin Hood accuracy of an observation.

If we never left this room
The wind would be a ghost to us.

‘Motive’

When other people arrive for the book club, she resents their intrusion. They discuss, academically at times. She listens. They slice open the words; revealing shades inside that expand her understanding. She listens and enjoys the explanations, technical comprehension that causes her head to bob in agreement. But nothing touches her experience of the words. When the confronted her in the corner and made her feel things. She loved the book for how it enabled her to feel, the images it conjures for her. The rest is pleasant white noise.

**

That was a second beginning, of sorts. From there she reads other collections, enjoying some more than others. That evening and that collection stands out amidst them, a union of setting and text and emotion that shapes every positive reading experience she has had. Like the time she read The Great Gatsby on a train back from London. Or The Ground Beneath Her Feet in an apartment in Barcelona. Or Even the Dogs on a bus in Kentish Town. Or, now, Rain in a low ceilinged bar in Norwich. Times, like this, when she unfurled within and divisions came to seem painfully arbitrary.

**

The poet said something else too.

“Poetry works in tandem with its environment and that environment includes the reader. Just as the sensation of running is strongly linked to the world around the runner, so the experience of a poem is linked to the world around the reader. It is so important to remember that.”

Yes. Experience, she thinks. That is what reading is all about.

 

Rain was published by Faber and Faber in 2009. 80pp, ISBN: 9780571249572

6 comments on “Rain by Don Paterson

  1. John
    September 20, 2011

    What an innovative approach (at least it is fresh to me) ! ‘Rain’ is very pleasant poetry which i enjoyed reading a while ago, but this way of reviewing it made me think what a review is. I like the idea of not always trying to decode poetry too closely and appreciate the way in which the diverse experience of reading can be compared with running. I always feel most comfortable when not running too fast and think that slow reading must be the best way forward. When you run very quickly you barely experience the context of your run & the same is true if you read too fast.
    Many thanks,
    John.

  2. littlenavyfish
    September 20, 2011

    Gosh, this is beautiful! I love reviews that really evoke something about how a book makes you feel, not just how terribly clever the writer is being (or not being). More like this!

  3. Shelley
    September 20, 2011

    Stole my title!

    But I enjoyed the review.

  4. Jackie
    September 20, 2011

    WOW! This is one of the best things you’ve ever written, Sam. I really liked it!
    I’ve never understood how people could not like at least some kind of poetry and you explained it in a relatable way. The way you used the settings, the metaphors(such as Berlin) & the evolution of the main character was excellent. The quotes from “Rain” are intriguing & I shall be seeking out this book in the library.
    Really well done, Sam!

  5. Sam Ruddock
    September 21, 2011

    Thank you all for your flattering comments. I’m so pleased it came over well. I don’t know whether this sort of reviewing is unique or not, but its something I really enjoy and hope I can develop further. It is difficult to do for most books, but that is the next challenge to overcome, I think.

  6. Hilary
    September 21, 2011

    Sam, I loved this very much, and if you want another vote to keep exploring this way of writing a review, you’ve got mine.

    I empathise with you about not ‘getting’ poetry and being slightly scared of it. I broke through to an extent when I was a student, tackling (to me) incredibly opaque poetry by the likes of Lorca and Valery, and almost having to take a mental hammer to the poems to extract the meaning. That meant that I stopped being scared of it, but I never really associated it with enjoyment, and so never got a poetry-reading habit. I’m coming back to it now, with great pleasure.

    This review chimes with me particularly so soon after reading ‘Now All Roads Lead To France’, and learning that Edward Thomas was so far from discovering his own poetic gift, that it took Robert Frost’s perception of him as a natural poet, and Frost’s simple advice to him, to take a passage of his prose, and break it into lines and verses, following the rhythm. Now, that isn’t going to work every time, for anybody – what it took was for someone to notice the natural prosody of a born poet, and point it out to him. The passages you quote seem to show that same simplicity – that can tell both reader and potential writer of poetry, that there’s nothing in poetry to be scared of – it can be all so natural. I think ‘Rain’ is one for me, too.

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This entry was posted on September 20, 2011 by in Entries by Sam, Poetry, Reviewed as a short story and tagged , , .

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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