Wednesday 22 November 2023

The Bat Poet: Poetry as Echolocation

This is the unlikely title of the inaugural lecture delivered in the Examination Schools, Oxford on 20 November 2023 by the recently elected Professor of Poetry, Alicia Stallings: an American poet who has lived in Athens for the last 25 years. She is married to the Al Jazeera journalist, John Psaropoulos.

Note the bat necklace

The lecture made a dramatic start: the first slide was projected upside down. There was a bat among us.
The Professor, who is more commonly known by her initials as AE Stallings, started by recounting an experience she had when she was about five years old. She was taken on a visit to the vast Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, home to six species of bat, which was the start of her fascination with bats; her imagination fired with notions such as ‘living upside down’ and ‘seeing with sonar’. As a mother now, she relates to the bat’s strong maternal instinct. As a writer, she has sought out the literature of bats.
She took as her text The Bat-Poet by the American poet and children’s writer, Randall Jarrell, which is summarised as follows:
There was once a little brown bat who couldn't sleep days - he kept waking up and looking at the world. Before long he began to see things differently from the other bats, who from dawn to sunset never opened their eyes. The Bat-Poet is the story of how he tried to make the other bats see the world his way.
Here, in The Bat-Poet, are the bat's own poems and the bat's own world: the owl who almost eats him; the mockingbird whose irritable genius almost overpowers him; the chipmunk who loves his poems, and the bats who can't make beads or tails of them; the cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and sparrows who fly in and out of Randall Jarrell's funny, lovable, truthful fable.
Alicia Stallings is a classical scholar and pointed out the timelessness of the word νυκτερίδες in Book 24 of the Odyssey where the spirits of the suitors in Hades are likened to squealing bats in a cave.
She is a form poet: one whose work, unfashionably, relies heavily on metre and rhyme. She said rhyme works like echolocation, is particular to one language and is a kind of simile. She talked of rhyme as a ‘quantum entanglement’ between unrelated words that share only their sound.

She touched upon the taxonomy of rhyme – the many kinds of it, such as full rhymes, slant and feminine ones. She pointed out that assonance, the sharing of vowel sounds, doesn’t always work when a poem is read because vowel sounds can differ within a language according to differences between writer and reader if they come from different generation or location; better, she said, if you want a rhyme to ‘travel’ then ‘hitch it to the sound of consonants’.
She read several poems to illustrate the points she was making. Here is just one:  Mind by Richard Wilbur:
Mind in its purest play is like some bat
That beats about it caverns all alone,
Contriving by a kind of senseless wit
Not to conclude against a wall of stone.
It has no need to falter or explore;
Darkly it knows what obstacles are there,
And so may weave and flitter, dip and soar
In perfect courses through the blackest air.
And has this simile a like perfection?
That mind is like a bat. Precisely. Save
That in the very happiest intellection
A graceful error may correct the cave.
Here the bat is introduced by way of a simile – a bat is like something else – as is usually the case, rather than portrayed as a metaphor for something bigger notion.
Her conclusion was that the ‘bat-poem’ of a ‘bat-poet’ is concerned with sound and echo and with darkness and does not usually present striking visual images, comes without much originality and tends towards the solitary state.
The Bat-Poet by Randall Jerrell is about failure: the bat falls asleep before he can read his poem.
Perhaps, the fate of most poems.
Richard Devereux

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