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

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 discussion:

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. 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 the Poetry Daily website. 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 “First Kiss,” and change the tense a little.


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.

Let’s put the same stanza under another title from another student poem from the same class:


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

Uh oh. We're back in the present tense now -- not looking 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.

Bat test

Now let's stick it under a couple of other titles, drawn from Poetry Daily (and without reading the poems, just grabbing the titles).


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.'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.

So that's the bat test. What happens to your poem if you stick the bat stanza into it? Does it derail the poem, or is it still strangely on track? If it derails the poem, maybe you're too locked into literal meaning. If it doesn't, then think about where else you can go.

Here are a few “bat test” poems from a Creative Writing 1 class at SUNY New Paltz. The assignment was to revise a poem they'd already written, adding the bat to it:

Mountain in the room where
Nobody’s looking
Only mother bat soaring crazily
Across the moon can
Detect the cardboard cliffs
Grandfather trees
Wilted dizzy flaming leaves covering
Car wreck on the red rocks, charred from
Desert fire last December
After night when air disappeared
Everyone was caught walking with heads
Down hoods up
Hands pocketed eyes
Sideways mouths
Pinned open when Mountain was revealed
-- Jessica Ritacco

On the bed:
his sweatshirt and my black bag.
There’s an email on the computer screen,
a letter in my hand.
How did this happen?
Don’t ask. Just pack.

For the city:
I’d want my going-out
clothes: tiny top and tight pants.
Underwear of the sexiest order,
kick-ass boots,
black eyeliner.

Going farther south?
Pack less and more,
good books to read.
Don’t worry about what you’ll wear to bed.
Forget the eyeliner, take lipstick instead
and your favorite flavor of tea.

To stay here
all you have to do is
shove that black bag
back under the bed.
Put his sweatshirt back on.
Step into the night.

A bat soars crazily
across the moon,
her mouth full of insects.
You watch her flight
and the blue clouds
bluer because you’re by the Mobil sign.

It's a warm night.
You don't really need the sweatshirt.

-- Jennifer Whitton

Tapping an ordinary pen
It looks blue, against her chin
This child of a bat soars
Crazily across the moon

Moving nimble fingers
Through hair tinged in a wheat colored hue
Her mouth full of insects
Spewing forth the flies as a foam

Cracking knuckles, coupled with scratching on a pad
Those studious contemporaries
Resting their heads on hands
While with legs crossed her foot played out a beat

A solitary crimson star
Stitched by hand, on a pant seam
This swirling motion can draw you in
As the muted boy attempts to speak

There must be so much more
Yet all I know are these
Aesthetic things, Lives of aesthetic dreams
She’s turning to leave, walking slowly.

-- Keith Donnelly

And here is Alicia Ostriker's “Summer Haiku”, which I hope I haven't ruined. I know I haven't—it's a lovely poem.:

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?