Book Review: Rain by Don Paterson

Year of First Publication: 2009

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011

Number of Pages: 61

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Genre: Poetry

Sub-Genres: Contemporary poetry

Find it on the Book Depository. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.)

really wanted to like this book. Especially since I believed this author was going to turn out to be one of my new favorite poets. I was taken in immediately by his technical brilliance, by the way he crafts his poems and makes these awe-inspiring, mind-bending little devices out of words. By the time I reached the end, though, I wasn’t nearly so excited.

In case you’re unfamiliar with him, Don Paterson is a Scottish poet and the author of eight books of verse, of which Rain is his sixth. I first discovered him thanks to this video by BookTuber Cinzia DuBois, in which she reads his poem “Fit” out of his latest book, 40 Sonnets. You could have called it love at first sight/listen: I then began looking up Paterson’s poems elsewhere, but the Poetry Foundation and the Scottish Poetry Library will only get you so far. I bought Rain because 40 Sonnets hasn’t been published in the US at the time and I didn’t want to wait to get it from a British seller.

What first attracted me to Paterson’s work was his style and language, seeming perfectly modern without avoiding form, rhyme, meter, and all of the other devices that we usually associate with older poetry. The little bit of his work that I had read prior to this collection was enough on its own to convince me that Paterson is an absolute master of poetic form. On that point, Rain is fantastic: Paterson uses a wide range of forms in this collection, everything from sonnets to the Japanese renku, and even some less traditional forms—for instance, his poem “Unfold,” a tribute to the late Japanese origami master Akira Yoshizawa which consists of a single blank page.

There are some truly beautiful things in his book. “The Rain at Sea” never ceases to amaze me, nor does “The Lie,” “Miguel,” or “Why Do You Stay Up So Late?” “The Bowl-Maker,” a version of the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, is one of my new favorite poems, and “Motive,” I’m happy to tell you, uses metaphor to explore the mystery of love in such a way as would do John Donne proud.

But . . .

While Paterson is a brilliant poet, I can’t say that I especially enjoyed Rain overall. This had mostly to do with the bleak, materialistic worldview presented in the collection.

One thing that you’ll notice very quickly is that this is a dark book: among other topics, its poems deal primarily with illness, lost love, and death. In the midst of his lamentations, you can feel Paterson straining to make sense of what seems senseless, to form an answer to the question, “Why do things like this happen?” And Paterson’s answer is there is no answer. The universe is meaningless, directionless, accidental. He summed it up more succinctly in the final lines of “Rain,” the last poem in the collection:

forget the ink, the milk, the blood—
all was washed clean with the flood
we rose up from the falling waters
the fallen rain’s own sons and daughters

and none of this, none of this matters.

As you can probably guess by now, I disagree: I actually do think that there’s an order and meaning to the universe. I even believe there’s such a thing as transcendent reality. And I think the best poetry—the best art, really—reflects that reality. I’m not saying that all poets need be religious, but they do have to have something of an “impulse towards the transcendent,” as Seamus Heaney called it. Paterson, it seems, is drawn to the transcendent, or at least to the idea of transcendence, but refuses to believe it exists. In his search for meaning, he has turned up empty and only has himself and his art to fall back on. For me, these kinds of poems just aren’t enough.

So in the end, Rain was sort of a let down. It had something of what I like in poetry: perfect word choices, biting wit, stunning imagery. But the one thing it lacked just so happened to be the main thing that I go to poetry for in the first place: a conviction of some greater meaning beyond the material world, and especially beyond myself.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Rain by Don Paterson

  1. I clicked on this because this is actually my favourite book of poetry! I have most of his books, and this is my favourite of his, probably because it’s his most accessible. I would disagree with you on the point that he presents a materialistic, godless world – although I might accept your point that he only has a tendency towards the transcendent without actual committed belief. Probably his most spiritual book is his reworking of Spanish poet Antonio Machado called The Eyes, which might well just be carrying the inspiring poet’s more wholehearted vision. I’m about to head out to a concert, but at some point in the next few days I’ll look out his books and make an argument for a more satisfyingly spiritual Don Paterson!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually probably my favourite poem of his and one that I find a very powerful tribue to a greater force, is from Rain- the poem called Motive “something hurries on its course / outside every human head / and noone knows its shape or force / but the unborn and the dead”. Its an idea evoked in another poem in the same collection – The Error “his world is just the glare of the world’s utility returned by his eye beam”. Both these poems speak to me about the truth but unknowability of a higher power or reality.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Interesting! I read “The Error” as being about man as the ultimate master of his fate. That line you quoted, for instance, sounded to me like it was saying that the “world” that each of us lives in–the purpose we believe we’re working towards and the things that give our lives meaning–are merely a matter of how we perceive what is available to us in the real world. But reading over “Motive” again, it does seem to speak to some unknowable other will. My first thought was that the mention of “something” hurrying on its course was a sort of rhetorical device: the speaker doesn’t completely understand love or the person that he’s addressing, so he describes the unknown in terms of a will alien to both of them. I didn’t think there was any real belief there, but maybe there is?


  2. I was interested to learn the reason behind your disappointment. I am glad it had nothing to do with the writing, so much as the worldview presented. Sometimes the writers who resonate the most with us don’t share the same world views! This was an enjoyable review to read – and now I am greatly curious to read ‘Rain’. It’s a simple, meaningful title I think. 🙂


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