Lifesaving Poems: WN Herbert’s ‘The Black Wet’


In 2002 I heard WN Herbert read ‘The Black Wet’ at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. This is not remarkable in itself, you might say, and perhaps you would be right. The truly remarkable thing about Bill’s reading is that I can still see and hear him delivering it, nine years later. For someone with the attention span of a gnat, this is unusual.

It was a beautifully paced reading, with proper peaks and troughs, moments of slapstick comedy followed by lyrical grace; towering rage followed by barehanded grief. For me the stand-out moment was Bill’s reading of the poem below, ‘The Black Wet’. It came to mind again this week as I watched and listened to theDevonskies doing what they love best.

With Bill’s performance still fresh in my mind’s eye, I am reminded that on hearing it I spent most of the time laughing. ‘How does he do that?’ I remember thinking, as the poem swirled around us and gathered unstoppable momentum, seemingly bringing everything in the world into its unique force-field of upside down logic.

I see this poem as a kind of chant or spell, the better with which to curse and/or bless the generosity of the heavens. It is always a good day when you can mutter under your breath ‘It’s raining Bala, Baikal, and balalaikas,/it’s raining soggysidewinders and sadder adders’.

I love the love of wordplay at the heart of this poem’s enterprise. The energy it generates reminds me of those music hall entertainers spinning plates.

Nine years later everything is still in the air. Nothing has come crashing to earth yet.

The Black Wet

It’s raining stair-rods and chairlegs,
it’s raining candelabra and microwaves,
it’s raining eyesockets.
When the sun shines through the shower
it’s raining the hair of Sif,
each strand of which is real gold
(carat unknown).

It’s raining jellyfish,
it’s raining nuts, bolts and pineal glands,
it’s raining a legion of fly noyades,
it’s raining marsupials and echnidae,
it’s raining anoraks in profusion.
It’s siling, it’s spittering, it’s stotting, it’s teeming,
it’s pouring, it’s snoring, it’s plaining, it’s Spaining.

People look up, open their mouths momentarily,
and drown.
People look out of windows and say,
“Send it down, David.”
Australians remark, “Huey’s missing the bowl.”
Americans reply, “Huey, Dewie and Louie
are missing the bowl.”

It is not merely raining,
it’s Windering and Thirling, it’s Buttering down.
It’s raining lakes, it’s raining grass-snakes,
it’s raining Bala, Baikal, and balalaikas,
it’s raining soggy sidewinders and sadder adders.
It’s raining flu bugs, Toby jugs and hearth-rugs,
it’s raining vanity.

The sky is one vast water-clock
and it’s raining seconds, it’s raining years:
already you have spent more of your life looking at the rain
than you have sleeping, cooking, shopping and making love.
It’s raining fusilli and capeletti,
it’s raining mariners and albatrosses,
it’s raining iambic pentameters.

Let’s take a rain-check:
it’s raining houndstooth and pinstripe,
it’s raining tweed. This is the tartan of McRain.
This is the best test of the wettest west:
it is not raining locusts – just.
Why rain pests
when you can rain driving tests?

It is raining through the holes in God’s string vest.

The black wet (Scots) – rain as opposed to snow

from New Blood (ed. Neil Astley), Bloodaxe Books (1999)

1 Comment

  1. Lovely. I came to this late and quite recently (it might have been your post here though I can’t remember). A good few words flashing indicators at the dictionary (or google) but ignorance doesn’t spoil the effect. The Black Wet (marvelous phrase) is not only in the tradition of the by now very traditional rain poem, but also a wonderful addition to the ‘poem as generous vessel’. Holub’s Love and The Door come to mind along with Les Murray’s Sprawl, Kit Wright’s poem for children, The Magic Box, Smart’s My Cat Jeoffrey and Morgan’s The Video Box:

    More recently, and no doubt far less successfully, I attempted a poem (somewhat in this tradition) myself and made a short 2 minute film of it:


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