Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Bat Poet

Every year or two, I feel compelled to reread Randall Jarrell’s little story The Bat Poet. The book is only 43 pages long, and those pages include many elegant pen-and-ink illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Jarrell wrote it as a children’s book, and I’m sure children find it thrilling and delightful. But, like most great children’s books – think of The Wind in the Willows, Alligator Pie, the books of Madeleine L’Engle and Arthur Ransome – it speaks equally to adults.

For children, it’s the story of a little bat who doesn’t quite fit in. For adults, it’s an allegory about the situation of the artist in the social order, and the relationship between a work of art and its audience.

The little bat, who is never named, starts out spending his summer days sleeping under the porch roof with all the other bats. But then, in late summer, the other bats move into the barn, and the little one stays alone at the porch. He doesn’t really know why, and he feels lonely.

As time goes by, he finds himself hanging awake during the day, and noticing what goes on in a world that nocturnal animals never even imagine. He sees squirrels, chipmunks and many different birds. And he listens intently to the mockingbird, who can imitate squirrels and squeaky doors, and rocks knocking together, and milk bottles.

The mockingbird’s songs enthrall him. And then comes the moment when the artist is born. The little bat thinks: I could do that.

It turns out that a bat can’t sing – but then he realizes that the words alone can be beautiful. So he makes up a poem and tries to “say” it to the other bats, to tell them how glorious the daytime can be. But the bats really don’t get it – the poem talks about colours, for instance, and their world has no colours – and the bat poet sadly falls silent.

Still, he keeps on making poems about all the things he sees, and eventually he gets up the courage to try one on the mockingbird – a chilling poem about an owl. “The ear that listens to the owl believes in death,” says the bat.

The owl goes back and forth inside the night,
And the night holds its breath.

The mockingbird thinks the poem is very clever, and technically “quite accomplished.”

The bat is pleased at the mockingbird’s approval, but also dismayed that the mockingbird doesn’t seem to feel the terror that inhabits the poem. And then he reads it to a chipmunk, who “gave a big shiver and said, ‘It’s terrible, just terrible! Is there really something like that at night?” Oh, yes, the bat assures him. So the chipmunk nervously resolves to go to bed earlier, and never to forage after dark, and to dig himself a lot more holes.

At last the bat has his audience. Now he makes up poems about the chipmunk, who is thrilled, and the mockingbird, who becomes quite defensive. He finds that some subjects – like the cardinal – simply will not generate poems, and he doesn’t know why.

Just before the two little furry companions go off to their separate winter sleeps, the bat composes an absolutely stunning poem about bats. A baby bat clings to its mother, who “dances through the night/Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting” and emitting “high sharp cries/Like shining needlepoints of sound.” As she flies, her baby “drinks the milk she makes him/In moonlight or starlight, in mid-air”while “their single shadow” is “printed on the moon.”

The story is charming, the characters sharp and distinctive, and the poems hang in the narrative like jewels. It’s not easy being a poet; as the bat poet reflects, “The trouble isn’t making poems, the trouble’s finding somebody that will listen to them.”

But the poems impel his true reader, the chipmunk, to see the world in a new way, understand things he had never known about, open up puzzling vistas of feeling. The poem about the owl, says the chipmunk, “makes me shiver. Why do I like it if it makes me shiver?”

Well, that’s what poets do – and so do painters, musicians, dancers, actors. That’s what artists do. And sometimes that sharpness of perception, that remorseless clarity of vision, is more than the artist can actually bear.

Jarrell himself was a superb poet and critic, but he was also a deeply troubled man. He was killed by a car in 1965, while he was walking along a roadside in North Carolina. It may not have been an accident. He was only 51, and he had recently been treated for depression, having made an earlier attempt at suicide.

But he left some dazzling writing behind him, and not the least of his achievements is this piercing and sinewy volume, so full of wisdom and beauty. And it will be waiting for me, like a friend, when I need it again.

2 comments:

Russ said...

Nice piece, Don. Something else we agree on. I don't know whether you know my piece on it?

http://www.stu.ca/~hunt/batpoet.htm

Lorna said...

Don, this made me want to read more by the author! Reminds me of Wilde's The Happy Prince, who asks his little bird friend to fly over the city "and tell me what you see there".