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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

01 March 2024

A sudden downpour in Arkansas reminds Malcolm Guite of some memorable lines of poetry

I AM on another visit to the States, this time to Texas and Arkansas. I am, as always on these trips, taken with the huge differences, and occasional similarities, between our countries. “Two countries divided by a common language” is a phrase variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill, although Wilde said something even more telling in his short story “The Canterville Ghost”: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.”

I heard a fine example of an apt, indeed mellifluent, American phrase when I was being driven from Dallas to Little Rock. We passed through the wonderfully named town of Texarkana, a city that, unsurprisingly, sits on the border between Texas and Arkansas; and, later, on the outskirts of Little Rock, we stopped at a pipe and tobacco shop for supplies, a smoke, and a little conversation.

On returning to the car after this brief interlude, we found that the weather had changed dramatically. Huge, dark clouds had appeared as if from nowhere, and we felt the first smattering of rain: big, heavy drops. By the time we were back on the highway, we were driving almost blindly through a torrential downpour.

“Well,” my host said, “this is a real Arkansas gully-washer. It’ll be over in a few minutes.” It was certainly washing out the gullies, sluicing down the drainage channels on the sides of the road, pouring and steaming off the edges of the hard shoulder; but, sure enough, in a few minutes it was all over, and we were driving down the shining, drying interstate as though nothing had happened.

I thought that, perhaps, my host had just made up the term “gully-washer” on the spot, in a moment of poetic inspiration; but, no, it turned out to be a phrase in regular use in the Midwest and western US, for the brief but intense cloudbursts that can happen there.

Before I heard its local name, the sudden downpour had put me in mind of the lines in Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Rain Stick”: “Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash Come flowing through.”

I’ve always enjoyed the way in which “sluice-rush” and “backwash” work across the line, and have, in their rhythmic and repeated w and sh, the very sound of the water sloshing and washing as it runs down and backs up against itself; and then the new half-line that ends the sentence — “Come flowing through” — itself expresses the sudden clearing of a channel or passage which lets the water flow through smoothly and quietly again. But now, I thought, what fun Heaney could have had if he had thrown “gully-wash” into the mix!

As it happens, I am going to be lecturing on Heaney’s poem later this week at Baylor University, in a lecture, “An Unexpected Music: The poetry of hope and renewal”. I will be speaking about the paradox at the heart of Heaney’s poem, which is that this beautiful music of rainfall is released from the most unexpected source:

Up-end the rain stick and what happens next

Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk. . .

By the end of the poem, the rain stick has become an emblem of unexpected blessing, springs in the desert, grace at the zero point. Our little drive through the Arkansas gully-washer made me feel that, somewhere amid all the other graces evoked by Heaney’s poem, there was also a kind of cleansing baptism: what Larkin, in a quite different poem, called “a furious devout drench”.

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