Some of you may remember that I discovered Randall Jarrell last year and promptly decided that I would read every word he’d ever written. Jarrell, unlike many authors, but like, say, Annie Dillard, wrote a fairly wide variety of things: a novel, poems, criticism, children’s books, essays. Reading his work is like being a very happy bee in… I don’t know, maybe Kew Gardens. He appears to be one of those blessed authors who has an unquenchable fount of originality.
All of which is to say that I didn’t expect The Bat-Poet, a slender little volume that purports to be for children, to be what it was. How could I? It’s not like anything else I’ve read by him. It tells the story of a little brown bat who begins to awaken during the daytime. Instead of going straight back to sleep, he looks out at the busy, sunny yard — the mockingbird, the squirrels — and he begins to invent poems about them, first imitating the mockingbird and then finding his own voice. Writing the poems turns out to be the easy part, though. Finding a sympathetic audience, now, that’s tricky.
The most wonderful thing about this book is that it achieves what most children’s books only reach for: the bat-poet is truly a bat, and truly a poet. The animal life is real — I felt the furriness of the bat, and his joy in flying and catching insects, and the pleasure of snuggling up with other bats to sleep. But the poetry is real, too, and it’s used to shout that animal life: a close call with a predatory owl, the life of a chipmunk, the barely-remembered first days of a bat baby. It struck me that these are the poems a bat would really write.
And the bat must write them. Even when his own community of bats doesn’t understand him (“It’s all so unreal,” they say. “Day’s for sleeping,”) even when the irritable-genius mockingbird gives him technical advice instead of feeling his poem’s emotional impact, the bat goes on creating, as he must. (I wondered whether the mockingbird was supposed to be someone in particular, or just a certain type of poet. The portrait certainly rang true.) The little bat may be discouraged and tenderhearted, but he never gives up. And when he finds his audience, a chipmunk who tells him, crucially, that “when a poem has all the things you do in it, you can’t help liking it,” he learns still more.
This book was completely different in tone and feel from the wild, sweet fable of The Animal Family. Yet it said some of the same things: however different you are, you will find a way to belong. Tell your story as many times as you must. Be heard. Make your story, your song, better and better; make it beautiful, make it new; take it back to where you began.
Randall Jarrell finds new ways to surprise me with the power, originality, and generosity of his work. This book is wise and kind, and Maurice Sendak’s illustrations are soft and beautiful. I’m so glad I have more to read.