Poetry Friday: Novels In Verse

I haven’t blogged this week. Partly because I was recovering from the events I organized for Poem in Your Pocket week, but partly because I’ve been sitting on this rather long post about Novels in Verse. I hope you’ll grab a cup of tea, stay awhile, and read. I’d love to hear your comments and opinions on this and really start a discussion about the verse novel structure.

Karen Hesse’s, OUT OF THE DUST (1997) was the first novel in verse that I read. The book, its structure and historical subject matter captivated me. Since then, the genre has exploded. Many kids like the novels in verse format because they are generally a faster read then a traditionally structured novel. The poetic structure of a verse novel can also make difficult or historic subjects more accessible. If you haven’t read many novels in verse, or verse novels you can find good lists of them here, here and here.

First, we should define verse. If one is writing “in verse,” there is some set rhythm or fixed metrical line to their poetry. [For example, iambic pentameter– or 5 iambs (2 syllables- soft-hard)]. Confusing the definition these days is that verse can also mean stanza or any poetry in general. This includes free verse, which has no “verse” or fixed rhythm at all.

Maybe part of my problem is that there is no real definition of what the verse novel structure needs to be. A sonnet, a haiku, a pantoum: all of these follow rules and I’m a rule follower. Let me be clear. I do not think that all novels in verse have to have a fixed or formal meter or rhyme scheme. I understand that there is a difference between a novel in verse and a collection of poems that tell a story. However, if a novel announces that it is in verse I do want to see the use of figurative language (metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, etc.) and/or sound devices (assonance, consonance, and alliteration) in addition to line breaks.

Any dedicated author chooses each word after careful consideration and considerable hair pulling. She wants to be appreciated for the rhythmic quality of her words. She wants someone to say, “I never would have thought of that particular metaphor,”or “What a beautiful image,” or “This reads like poetry.” Yet even though some prose is poetic, not all novels work in verse.

When a novel in verse doesn’t work for me, I fight with myself. On one hand, I want to see kids exposed to poetry, and I think there are a variety of ways to tell a story well. On the other hand, I have questions about the legitimacy of the form. What makes a novel in verse? Is it enough for a writer to simply employ line breaks and call it poetry? What about figurative language, and formal poetic form? But wait, I counter, isn’t the line break a legitimate tool of the poet?

Many authors defend the form saying that line breaks are a valid poetic tool. The breaks allow the reader to fill in the space between what is written and what is implied. Absolutely! This is similar to the space between the panels in a graphic novel or comic strip. The reader creates, as Scott McCloud says, “closure” filling in the gaps between the frames. Holly Thompson, RA from SCBWI Japan and author of the verse novel ORCHARDS wrote in her Hatbooks Blog ,“In a verse novel all that white space needs to carry meaning.” (And I would add emotion.)

Here’s my problem, in too many “novels in verse,” I could easily get rid of the line breaks and the passage would read perfectly well. No space for the reader. No closure necessary.

One of my very favorite novels for children is, A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT by Linda Urban. I listened to this book before I read it, (I highly recommend the audio version BTW) and I wondered, as I listened to the first few short, titled chapters, if Linda had written a novel in verse. It is poetic, and rhythmic. When I picked up the printed book I was pleased to see that she had written the book in prose but her language, emotion, and sensory details were so beautiful, honest, and specific that it read like poetry. I spoke to her at the recent NESCBWI conference and asked her if she had considered writing a novel in verse. She said no, but the novel in verse format gave her the liberty to consider a different format.

I shared an elevator ride with fellow poetry lover Kelly Fineman at the NESCBWI conference where we discussed the issue briefly. She’s done a number of interviews on her blog with authors of verse novels. Perhaps she’ll chime in here with an opinion.

Unfortunately, I’m ending where I started– with no real answers. However, since I’m considering this structure for one of my own WIP’s, I’ll continue to study the genre. What novels in verse do you love and why? What makes a novel in verse work, or not work for you? I’d love your thoughts in the comments below.