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Monday, May 29, 2017

"Taxing the Rain" by Penelope Shuttle

Penelope Shuttle's "Taxing the Rain" can be found here [link]

an exploration post


Let's just explore some language in a bit a verse. Penelope Shuttle's "Taxing the Rain" passed by my way today in my FB scroll and it struck me as a curious thing. It's been put online by Jeanette Winterson on her page [link]. (To note, it came my way formatted entirely in two-line stanzas, not as Winterson types it.)

The heart of the verse – its focus and its primary source of energy as presented – is the description of rain and what it does. And there are moments in there that might in themselves offer points for interesting discussion. (E.g., the shape of scented baths? Or, is it rain anymore when it is a bath? Or, notice how the verse uses a shift to abstraction, "dreamy complexity," to get the rain indoors.) However, what interests me most is the framing device that is used to get the verse to the idea of what the rain is and does: that is, the idea of people wanting to "tax the rain."

The idea as presented creates a difficulty. You can speak of "taxing automobiles," say, but it is clear from the idea that it is the owner that will pay the tax. It is the owner that is really being taxed. But who would be the once-removed target of putting a tax on rain? Nobody "possesses" rain; nobody "causes" rain for a desired purpose. Indeed, most of the text's description of rain is rather universal if not a-personal. How would the rain pay a tax upon itself? How would such a thing be leveed? What exactly would be collected? Does the phrase "tax the rain" make any sense in the everyday world? With any thought comes the recognition that taxing the rain is inherently an absurdity.

Now, the presence of an absurdity in a text does is not in itself a flaw in the text. The issue is not whether there exists an absurdity. The issue is whether the text can get the reader over the ideational hurdle of the absurdity. That is, to use a phrase, does the text successfully suspend disbelief so that the absurdity can become part of a vibrant whole?

Look at how the idea is first presented in "Taxing the Rain":

I think how many men and women

would, if they could,
against all sense and nature,

tax the rain for its privileges;

Under examination we see that the absurdity is being compounded, not eased. "I think how many men and women": we are not only being pointed to the loose fiction of taxing the rain, we are being pointed to the concrete idea that there actually exists people who presently want to tax the rain. "I think of how many men and women" – as though it is something we all should have come across by now, as though it is something we all have come across more than once, as though we've all met or known or heard a someone who has openly vocalized an earnest desire to tax the rain, and as such can we "think" of "how many" of them there are.

Let the rain be taxed, they say

As though people actually say that. As though if we read the papers we will see that very thing being said. The verse has attempted to ground the absurdity of taxing the rain, but has grounded it in a rhetoric that points to real life, and that points to something that does not exist. That is a problem. The text has not eased the acceptance of the absurdity, is has complicated it.

Notice how the text doubles down on trying to get the reader to accept the idea of taxing the rain. It does it twice. First, in the passage above with "against all sense and nature." Instead of weaving a suspension of disbelief the statement is merely insisting upon the believability of the proffered fiction. The text is only saying to the reader, "This thing makes sense; against all sense this thing makes sense." That does not make for a strong argument.

The second place is in the last stanza, which closes off the verse re-affirming what has been stated previously (without expanding on the idea). That closing, for me, the turning away from the description of the rain back to the supposed people who would tax the rain, makes me question the apparent point of the verse. Most of the energy of the verse is dedicated to describing the rain; but was the verse supposed to be about the rain? One would think that that is the point of the verse: to describe the rain as a positive thing, something so positive no one in their right mind would think to tax it. But if the main thrust of the verse is to be about the rain, why is it turning back to talking about the people who would tax it? The phrasing of that last line,

even now, they whisper, it can be done, it must be done.

puts a lot of weight into the motivation of such people and the nature of such people. But, then, if the verse is supposed to be about those people, why does it put so little effort (and so much repetition) into describing those people? Why does it take five lines even to get to those people? Why does it start not with those people but with a narrative "I"?

I find the opening five lines to be in error. It points the reader to an individual experience of the rain when the text is going to devote its energies instead to a general experience of the rain. The argument of the text begins at line 6,

I think how many men and women

and the verse should begin there as well. Starting there immediately points the reader to the arguments of the verse: the things the rain does; the people who would tax the rain for the things it does. The first five lines make for a poor lead-in.

But my main issue with the text would remain. "I think how many men and women" points to the idea that in real life we can – and ostensibly have, what with that word "many" – come across people who have vocalized the desire to tax the rain. (Again: "Let rain be taxed, they say.") The verse clumsily handles the introduction of the absurdity of taxing the rain, and for that clumsy introduction the absurdity becomes the more difficult to swallow.

What if the verse used a slightly different line? Not

I think how many men and women [would tax the rain]


I imagine many men and women [would tax the rain]

First, at the level of basic syntax, notice the difference in meaning. The former says "I think how many": the phrase is not about the tax or the rain, it is about the number of people. The syntax is misdirected. Saying, instead, "I imagine many people would" points straight to the people, to the idea of taxing, and to that they go together. The difference between the two creates a completely different rhetorical stance as well. Saying "I think how many" points to an experienced reality, as though the narrator has – and has many times – come across people who in seriousness have expressed such an intent, however absurd that intent. Saying "I imagine many" points not outward to a reality but to the imagined hypothetical that there are people who are of such a mind that it would not be beyond them to attempt to do something as absurd as taxing the rain. Rhetorically, one is factual, saying there are people who have in actually said this; the other is metaphorical, saying there are people whose minds and souls are such that this absurd idea gives workable description of them. Thus why I believe my suggestion preferable: presenting an absurdity metaphorically is, one would think, more ideationally palatable than presenting it factually.

Now, I might argue that the nature of the framing device points to another problem with the verse: that when the verse describes the rain it abandons the framing device and just plays with describing rain. (Thus the verse's apparent need for a repetitive reaffirmation of the device at the end.) But I'll leave that for your own exploration.

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