The Bat Poet

Book Card  -  Volume 4  -  Book Review Number 2  -  Fri, Jan 20, 1989 10:24 PM

TITLE: The Bat Poet
AUTHOR: Randall Jarrell, illustrations by Maurice Sendak
PUBLISHER: The MacMillan Company

The hero of the THE BAT POET, a little brown bat who insists on sleeping from the porch roof of a farm house instead of in the barn like all the other bats, is a true Ponarvian. Upside down from his lone rafter, "he would just hang there and think" late summer days when the other bats were sleeping.

One day lying drowsily awake, the little bat hears the local poetmaster, the mockingbird. His song sounds beautiful to the bat. "Listen to the mockingbird," he tells his bat friends; "When you hear him it's just like the daytime." Such poetry moves the little bat to try his own hand at composing poems.

And that is what the book is about. This little forty page children's book is the best primer I know of on the poetic process - on how poems are made, on the impulses that impel one to write poems, on the effect that poems can have on an audience, on the great delight that poetry gives.

And so the bat works at creating poems. After much trial and error, he gets to a point where he begins to develop his own voice and to intergrate his own experiences and observations into his poems. He recites a poem about his encounter with the owl to the mockingbird. Part of it goes like this: The ear that listens to the owl believes / In death. The bat beneath the eaves, / The mouse beside the stone are still as death -- / The owl's air washes them like water."

The mockingbird gives the bat quite a technical response about iambic feet and rhyme schemes, which discourages the bat. "'The trouble isn't making poems, the trouble's finding somebody who will listen to them,'" he thinks to himself. Like all poets, the bat wants an audience who will really be affected by his words.

The little bat finally finds that audience in the chipmunk, who shivers and is frightened by the owl poem and is delighted when the bat creates a poem called "The Chipmunk Day." A week afterward he asks the bat, "'What say I was as red as?

'As maple leaves. As leaves the wind blows off the maple.'

'Oh yes, I remember now,' the chipmunk said; he ran off contentedly."

Like a true poetry lover, lines from a favorite poem tend to resonate in him, and he feels a need to possess them. The chipmunk also discovers that poetry enables him to see things in ways he hadn't realized. When he hears a poem about the mockingbird, he responds; "'It really is like him... You wouldn't think he'd drive you away and imitate you. You wouldn't think he could.'"

The little bat learns that he just can't make up poems on demand. Often, as hard as he tries, nothing of value comes, as when he tries to make a poem for the cardinal. The bat comes to learn what Wordsworth called "wise passiveness" - receptivity. If you observe and listen well, then, when you least expect it, inspiration will ignite in you, but you have to earn it and be open to it.

The final poem the bat poet makes is about his own life as a bat. He finds that creating it is "easier than the other poems, somehow." Part of it goes like this: "In full flight; in full flight / The mother drinks the water of the pond / She skims across. Her baby hangs on tight. / Her baby drinks the milk she makes him / In moonlight or starlight, in mid-air."

It is winter now. When the bat finishes his poem, he goes to the barn to recite it to his bat friends. He finds them all sleeping. It doesn't matter somehow. The bat begins "to say the poem over to himself. . . in a soft contented whisper." Before he can end, he snuggles to the others and falls asleep.

THE BAT POET is not only about the care and feeding of poets, it is about the care and feeding of Ponarvians everywhere. Randall Jarrell, the author of this book and one of our century's great poets and critics, ought to know, for what is a poet or any artist if not a Ponarvian in heart and soul. The accompanying woodcuts to this book by Maurice (WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE) Sendak are quite beautiful.

This book is well worth finding. Unfortunately it's been out of print for some years, so you'll have to look for it in your library. Maybe you'll get lucky and find it in a used bookstore. But do find it. Enjoy.