Poetry, and novels in verse

Some time back, I wrote a blog entry where I touched on my feelings about verse novels. And boy did I get flack for my thoughts. So, in order to make my opinions clearer, I’ll take one more stab at the topic.

First, let’s start with a few definitions, thanks to Wikipedia.

  • Poetry is a form of literary art which uses aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language—such as phonaesthetics, sound symbolism, and metre—to evoke meanings in addition to, or in place of, the prosaic ostensible meaning.

  • Prose is a form of language which applies ordinary grammatical structure and natural flow of speech rather than rhythmic structure (as in traditional poetry).

  • A verse is formally a single metrical line in a poetic composition. However, verse has come to represent any division or grouping of words in a poetic composition, with groupings traditionally having been referred to as stanzas. Moreover, verse has also been a traditional application in drama, which is therefore known as dramatic poetry, verse drama, or dramatic verse.
    The word “verse” is commonly, though incorrectly, used in lieu of “poetry” to distinguish it from prose. Where the common unit of verse is based on meter or rhyme, the common unit of prose is purely grammatical, such as a sentence or paragraph. Prose poems and free verse, though poetry, are not verse, because they exhibit no regular patterns of rhythm.

  • A verse novel is a type of narrative poetry in which a novel-length narrative is told through the medium of poetry rather than prose. Either simple or complex stanzaic verse-forms may be used, but there will usually be a large cast, multiple voices, dialogue, narration, description, and action in a novelistic manner.

The key point of the above is that although verse is not a synonym for poetry, it does rely on meter or rhyme. There must be a valid reason for arranging text into lines and stanzas. If there is no sound rationale for doing so, then the text should be arranged into paragraphs.

In my previous posting, I included a brief portion from a recent MG verse novel, and showed (I hoped) that arranging the text as prose worked just as well as the original verse. Here’s another example to drive my point home (again, I hope).

As summer wheat came ripe,
so did I,
born at home, on the kitchen floor.
Ma crouched,
barefoot, bare bottomed
over the swept boards,
because that’s where Daddy said it’d be best.

I came too fast for the doctor,
bawling as soon as Daddy wiped his hand around
inside my mouth.
To hear Ma tell it,
I hollered myself red the day I was born.
Red’s the color I’ve stayed ever since.

I picked this quote, from Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse, to show an example of good verse writing. The first line, “As summer wheat came ripe”, is composed of three iambs. An iamb is a metrical foot used in various types of poetry, consisting of a short sound followed by a long sound. For example, sonnets are generally written in iambic pentameter. That is, each line is constructed from five (penta) iambs.

Here’s the same line with short syllables in italics, and long syllables in bold face.

As summer wheat came ripe

One immediately hears a cadence, a rhythm, which reflects the musicality of the text. Also, listen to the ‘t’ in “wheat”, and the ‘p’ in “ripe”, sharp, crisp sounds that convey a certain bite to the line’s end.

The next line consists of two more iambs, with the first short sound omitted, or rather what is termed a cretic (long-short-long).

so did I

Iambic verse is quite close to the way we speak, which is why Shakespeare often wrote in iambic pentameter.

Next, let’s look at the use of the ‘b’ sound, over and over, in the first stanza. This is called alliteration, the repetition of a particular sound in the prominent lifts (or stressed syllables) of a series of words or phrases. As we move into the second stanza, this shifts to a greater use of the ‘d’ sound, ending with the word “red”, twice, which concludes the second stanza with a strong, clean sound. See how the author echoes “red the” with “Red’s the”.

This is poetic writing at it’s best. You are drawn to continue reading not simply because of a good story. Rather, the music, the meter, the rhythm of the text is heard, and appreciated, long before the meaning of the text becomes apparent.

This implies that those who write novels in verse have two goals. The first is to tell a good tale. But the second is what distinguishes it from prose. Writing a verse novel demands attention to the poetic elements of language.

This is not easily accomplished, and merely breaking text into lines and stanzas does not yield a verse novel. Often, it simply results in prose that is arranged differently on the page.

Nuff said!

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Everything old is new again!

Perhaps what I’m about to say will show my age (and no, I’m not telling), but there are two well-established science fiction authors I believe every middle grade reader should delve into at some point. They are Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946).

Ooh, I can already hear the moans and growns in the audience. “But they’re so, like, old! Who would want to read them. I mean there’s lots of really good new authors.”

Yes, they are old, so old they’re dead (sorry). And yes, again, there are plenty of new authors out there who write as well. But please, allow me the chance to continue before the virtual tomatoes rain down on my digital head.

I believe part of the reason many people see these writers as … dated … or more appropriately, out-dated, is the collection of film and TV adaptions we have been pummeled with over the years. Take, for example, H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds”(1898). Immediately, you either have images of Gene Barry (who?) running valiantly away from thrumming ships on three legs, with creatures that have three eyes, or you see Tom Cruise doing pretty much the same thing. BTW, John Wyndham’s novel, “The Day of the Triffids” (1951), covers much the same ground.

But have you ever read WotW? No? Well if you do, you’ll see just how different it is from these “action” movies. The original novel spends far more time focussing on the hero, unnamed, than on the invaders and their machines. It’s truly more about how people might react given such extraordinary circumstances.

Another great Wells read is “The Time Machine” (1895). Fortunately, an early movie adaptation stayed fairly close to the text. If you’re a fan of steampunk, as well as science fiction, I highly recommend TTM. You might also like diving into “The Invisible Man” (1897).

If we step a bit further back in time, we find Jules Verne whipping up sweet fictional delights. One of my favorites is “Journey to the Center of the Earth” (1864, revised 1867). In this novel, we follow the exploits of Professor Lidenbrock and his crew as they retrace the steps of Arne Saknussemm who, according to an ancient piece of text, found a path to the center of the earth. Okay, go ahead and laugh. We all know, today, that the center of the earth is a core of molten metal. But this does not take away from the beauty of Verne’s writing.

Another Verne book I can recommend is “Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea” (1869-70). Here we follow the exploits of, who else, Captain Nemo, as he takes vengeance against civilization. He also makes great scientific discoveries along the way.

The true thrill of reading Verne is that he was able to imagine technologies, that we see as common place, so very, very long ago. Unlike some early science fiction pulp novels, about space travel and weird aliens (think space opera), Verne and Wells create stories that though they might seem outlandish, today, still have a ring of truth about them. Good writing does last.

Now, here’s the really great part about author’s such as these. Their work is so old, it’s in the public domain. That means that you can download ebook versions typically for free. You can find them at bookseller websites such as amazon.com, as well as another site I recommend you take a good look at: Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/).

So download an ebook version to your Kindle, Nook, iPad, Android, or whatever. Or, better yet, step into your favorite local public library, and check out a few. I know you’ll thank me.

Nuff said!