Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Bat Test

I've posted this before, but who can find old posts in a blog? Besides, I've revised it, and who knows, maybe I even have some new readers.

It's the background for an exercise I give my Creative Writing I students.

This is a student poem from a few years ago – the first draft of a poem that went on to become much, much better – bright and sensual and well-realized.

First Kiss
The surf rushes forward,
falling with fury into a fluid fusion.
Waves whirl and intertwine.
Surges of synergic seduction plunge deeper
as they rise and tumble.
Ripples diminish, and bliss licks the shore.
The ocean’s caress recedes
and I, standing barefoot in the sand

And my response, or the relevant part for this exercise:

You’ve already let us know that the poem is going to be about a romantic, breathtaking moment, by titling it “First Kiss.” So you don’t need to explain that.
You also don’t need to explain to the reader that surf is a crashing, exciting phenomenon. So ANYTHING you say about the waves will carry that. Which means that’s the one thing you DON’T want to say, because you’re saying it already. Adding anything about rushing, or fury, is going to be redundant, and will feel like overkill.

Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town, talks about "writing off the subject." I'd add another, similar suggestion: "Writing away from the subject."

Not only do you not need to say what you've already said, you don't need to say what you've already suggested. It’s close to impossible to write total non sequiturs. If something pops into your head, no matter how disconnected it may seem from what went before, it's connected because your head is the one it popped into.

So the connections are there. They can’t help but be. Our minds are connection-making machines. That’s what they do. And that means you need to trust us as readers to make those connections. We will make them...sometimes even better than you, the poet, will, because we expect them to be there. If we know a poem is called "First Kiss," we'll connect anything that follows to the experience of a first kiss (whatever our experience of a first kiss is). So write away from it. Don't describe a first kiss. Describe something else.

Here's a stanza from a poem called “Summer Haiku” by Alicia Ostriker, which I originally found on Poetry Daily, and which you can now find on a website of the Montfort Literary Society, but I’ll post the whole poem below.The stanza reads

A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

Now, instead of “Summer Haiku,” let’s call the poem


That night, a bat soared
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

Once we see the title "First Kiss," we're going to relate whatever comes after to the idea of a first kiss. We may read this and think -- this is a kiss she shouldn't have gotten into. This is a dangerous first kiss -- irresistible because of its crazy danger, because of the moonlight...but dangerous.

I revised the first line slightly, but suppose we restore it to its original state?


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

What’s her mother doing in a poem about a first kiss? Because it has to be her mother…she’s the first thing in the poem, and she’s at a vantage point to spy on the girl.

And the mother is nurturing. Maybe too nurturing for a girl who’s ready to try life on her own, with a first kiss.

Let’s put the same stanza under another title from another student poem, the next in my stack:


A bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
her mouth full of insects.

Uh oh. We're in the present tense now -- not looking back at the first kiss from a distance of time, but right there with the guy as his girl friend storms away, and his mind is full of doubts. Why is he looking at the sky, and not at her? Maybe because of the doubts. He wants to shut her out, at least for the moment. But he can't shut her out -- anything he sees is going to be relevant. And he sees a bat flying crazily across the moon -- the symbol of romantic love being crossed by the symbol of vampirism -- the creature who will first appear sexual and enticing, but will then suck the blood and the soul out of you. And in the speaker's mind -- because there's no way he could actually know this -- the bat is a woman.

The mouthful of insects may not be such a symbol of nurturing here. It may be the girlfriend’s mouth when he kisses her, or when they argue.

I went back to Poetry Daily, grabbed the titles to next couple of titles after Ostriker’s, and stuck the bat under them.


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
mouth full of insects.

He's visiting the dog's grave at night. He must be very lonely. And the solitary bat makes him feel even lonelier. But...it's a mother bat. Her mouth is full of insects for her babies. Even this world, bereft of a beloved dog, is full of life and nurturing in the strangest places...maybe? We have to read on.


A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
mouth full of insects.

You make the interpretation.

Or how about this? Ezra Pound's famous two-line poem.


The apparition of these faces in the crowd,
Bats flying crazily across the moon.

Or William Carlos Williams:
So much depends

a mother bat

crazily across
the moon

mouth full of

The exercise? Take any one of the poems they've written for me up to this point in the semester, and revise it to include the bat.

Here’s the original:

Summer Haiku

by Alicia Ostriker

All night the peepers
Singing around our small pond,
Drunk men, happy men.

A mother bat soars
Crazily across the moon,
Mouth full of insects.

A grasshopper leaps
Through the meadow, escaping
The mower. This time.

I am so little,
Thinks the leaping grasshopper,
Why not let me live?


J. Newberry said...

Interesting ideas, Tad.

I know that for me, a title is an integral part of a poem (well, yeah.) What I mean to say is that a title should be a part of the poem, not merely a label.

Your "In a Station at the Metro" example is apt.

Too often, when I write, I have a title that's merely set dressing. It doesn't do its work.

In a poem, space is so limited already. A poet is tightening language, pushing it, even bending it the way a guitarist bends a string. A title should be a part of this bending; a title should be a part of the experience of a poem.

Great post.

Tad Richards said...

I wonder what a list of our last ten poem titles would say about us. Here are mine, in reverse chronological order:

Blues Paradelle
The Final Act
The Dead
The Blue Hula
I'm With You on the Last Train to Rockland
Sookie's Ghazal
You Want a Poem
She Took Off Her Dress