By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Published as the final poem in Don Paterson’s 2009 collection of the same name, ‘Rain’ is probably Paterson’s best-known poem.
As well as being a fine poet in his own right, Don Paterson has also written some excellent studies of other poets’ work: his introduction to Michael Donaghy, Smith: A Reader’s Guide to the Poetry of Michael Donaghy, is required reading for anyone interested in Donaghy’s poetry, while his study of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary, is an entertaining guide to the poems.
‘Rain’ similarly repays close analysis and critical attention; before we offer some words of commentary, you can read ‘Rain’ here.
Paterson has expressed the opinion that the more complex an idea or emotion is, the more onus there is on the poet to express themselves clearly. ‘Rain’ is a fine example of such an attitude to the poet’s craft and responsibility: describing his own fondness for films that ‘start with rain’ or open with shots of a ‘downpour’, Paterson goes on to say that even the worst or overly long film can ‘do no wrong’ in his eyes, if it opens with rain on a ‘starlit gutter’.
Even if one of the actors’ native twang or brogue breaks in while they’re speaking in the false accent they’ve adopted for the film, or poor editing means the boom mic is in shot, or a clunky speech by one of the female characters betrays the film’s origins in a play (imperfectly adapted for the big screen), a film that opens with atmospheric views of rainfall will always be a winner for the poet. Why? What is it about this filmic image that holds such appeal for him?
He doesn’t tell us, of course: the job of the poet is to express complex ideas and moods clearly, but those moods and ideas remain complex, hard to pin down. Nevertheless, in the final lines of the poem, Paterson provides some hints as to why he might ‘love all films that start with rain’.
Paterson’s focus is on films that ‘start with rain’, and of course, his own poem mirrors this by opening (or starting) in its first line with this acknowledgment (just as the poem has already ‘started with rain’, in a sense, with its very title). Note how the poem opens with one generalisation (‘all films’) and ends with a negative reflection of this (‘none of this matters’). But the end of the poem gives voice to the filmic rain, in those italicised lines, which offer a soothing message for the poet.
The off-rhyme or pararhyme in that final standalone line, with ‘matters’ softening or flattening ‘waters’ and ‘daughters’, underscores the ambiguity of the line: none of what matters? Does that final line praise the power of rain (as a symbol as much as anything) of purification, washing away our worries and our pain?
Or does it remind us of the insignificance of individual human lives (‘the ink, the milk, the blood’: i.e. writing, child-rearing, and the very stuff of life?), because rain will outlive us all? After all, ‘flood’ and ‘fallen’ suggest the Flood from the Book of Genesis, sent by God to wipe out humanity for its sins.
Perhaps this is too nihilistic or apocalyptic an analysis of a poem that is, despite its bittersweet tone, ultimately more celebratory than it is despairing: although many of the images Paterson mentions are downbeat, his poem is praising the way films are able to evoke and capture this downbeat mood in ways that resonate at a deep emotional level.
With that in mind, it might be more productive to see that trio of ink, milk, and blood as summoning things which are spilt: ink is spilt in writing something (such as the rather less than perfect script of the flawed film?), milk is proverbially spilt but not worth crying over, and blood is spilt in war and violence. Forget all this, the cinematic rain seems to say: none of these undesirable or imperfect things matter.
‘Rain’ is written in quatrains comprising rhyming couplets, aabb, with some pararhyme (e.g. dress/face in the opening stanza). The metre is loosely iambic tetrameter, but with numerous variations, e.g. a spondee or heavy iamb at the beginning of the second line (‘Rain, braiding…’).
Although this is a contemporary poem, it is written in a direct, accessible style with a strong lyric ‘I’, utilising traditional rhyme and metre. The iambic metre allows for the directness of the lyric’s speaker to shine through in a clear, unpretentious way, with the (fairly) regular beats summoning the thudding of rain on a roof.
The subject, too, is traditional: rain has been a feature of English poetry (although ‘English’ here means merely ‘written in the English language’: Paterson is Scottish!) ever since the lyric ‘Westron Wynde’ from the Middle Ages, and numerous poets, from Shakespeare to the Romantics to war poets (see Edward Thomas’s ‘Rain’ and Alun Lewis’s ‘All Day It Has Rained’) have used this weather phenomenon as a basis for poetry. (Who says the British are obsessed with the weather?!)
But ‘Rain’ is as much about film as it is about rain: in fact, some readers may even feel that Paterson’s poem is less about the cleansing powers of the downpour than it is about the way nature is mediated through art – first through the films Paterson alludes to, and second through his poem itself – an interesting example of supposed ‘high art’ (poetry) using ‘popular’ art (film) to explore a theme.
Note that Paterson doesn’t mention any specific films: he is instead playing on particular poses, shots, clichés, and concepts within film: rain streaming down an actress’s face at the beginning of a film, for instance. The poem might almost be described as a ‘meta-exploration’ of pathetic fallacy: rain is used in literature to set the scene (‘It was a dark and stormy night’, etc.), but also in film for the same purpose.