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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Gee, and I thought blogs were for …

As you may or may not know, I write poetry, stories and books for kids up through middle grade. So, I decided to see if there were any other WordPress blogs I might wish to follow. I entered the search term, “middle grade,” and found …

Ads! Lots of posts that were essentially PR for the blogger’s books, or reviews of specific books. What I did not find, however, was any sort of posts that focussed on the art of writing for kids.

Yes, I know, we all use the Internet (notice the capital ‘I’) for getting the word out about our efforts, but is that all there is? Have we become nothing more than mere snake oil salesmen, hawking our wares from the back of a website? I would hope not.

Therefore, if you’re still reading this, I need to ask a favor. Can you please let me know of any blogs out there that are extremely light on both self-publicity and book reviews, and heavy on the art of being a writer. This inquiring mind needs to know!

Nuff said!

Looking for good MG verse

As of late, as you may or may not have noticed in my recent posts, I have been on a crusade to increase the amount of poetry that gets into the hands of middle grade readers. Lo and behold, a colleague of mine brought to my attention a list on amazon.com, of MG novels written in verse. Huzzah, I thought, perhaps this is the way to meet this goal.

However, at my monthly children’s writers shoptalk, I got to see first hand one of the books on the list: May B. by Caroline Starr Rose. I eagerly began to read the book, and then my heart fell. Yes, the book was written in verse, free verse, in that sentences were broken across multiple lines. And yes, the text was further arranged as stanzas. But as far as I could tell, this was not true verse, true poetry. It seemed to have the form of verse, but none of its substance.

Later, after the meeting, I found myself chatting with another group member who, like myself, writes and publishes poetry. As we talked, I conveying my disappointment with the book. My friend then thanked me, profusely, saying she had felt the same way. I went on further to say that given the low word count, the book was more akin to a long short story, or perhaps a novelette.

Before I continue, allow me to make it clear that I only read the first so many pages in the book, and that this post is not about the merits of the volume as a story. In fact, online reviews have praised it as a wonderful story. Yet, I wonder. How much of that praise was due to the verse-like form of the text? Hard to say for sure. So let’s leave that discussion for others to pursue.

Returning to the form of May B., I found the text lacking in the music of verse. This is not to say that a poem needs to be sing-songy. Not at all. But it does need to develop a flow, a rhythm all its own. This is true whether we’re speaking of structured or free verse.

Take, for example, Chapter 1.

I won’t go.

“It’s for the best,” Ma says,
yanking to braid my hair,
trying to make something of what’s left.

Ma and Pa want me to leave
and live with strangers.

I won’t go.

Now, let’s rearrange that same text in paragraph form.

I won’t go.

“It’s for the best,” Ma says, yanking to braid my hair, trying to make something of what’s left. Ma and Pa want me to leave and live with strangers.

I won’t go.

The first thing you notice is that it reads quite well in either form. That is, there’s nothing in the rhythm of the text that lends itself to being arranged as verse. However, if we had tried to rearrange, say, a Shakespearean sonnet, we would still hear the same lilting music in verse or paragraph form.

So, I’ll keep looking for good examples of poetry, or verse novels, for MG readers. Hope springs eternal!

Nuff said!

Should Mid-Grade kids read poetry?

There is, with respect to both fiction and non-fiction, a wonderful transition in publishing from baby books, to picture books, to early readers, to mid-grade, to young adult and, finally adult books. Each of these areas is well represented and thriving, as best as possible in these economic times.

So, why do I not see the same for poetry?

First off, I am not saying that books of poetry do not exist for each reading level; they do. What I do notice is that for mid-grade (MG) there seems to be a noticeable dropoff in the percentage of poetry books to other types of writing being published. Again, this is just one person’s perspective; mine.

A quick browsing online for the terms “middle grade” and “poetry” brings up many hits. But be warned, quantity does not imply quality. Many of the “poetry” books listed are actually novels written in verse. These are fine books, and inviting kids to enjoy works in verse is admirable, but they are not collections of poetry.

Other collections seen are actually picture books, where the image is as important as the word. Great for younger readers, but what about volumes, sans illustrations, that focus on the written words of poetry, that invite the middle reader to appreciate and think about poetry for itself?

It almost seems, to me, that folks see children’s poetry and adult poetry as separate fields, with no natural transition possible between the two. Is this true? Can we not have serious poems written for a MG reading level? Or even humorous MG poems, if that’s what it takes?

I’m not asking for poetry books at theses midde levels to overtake fiction and non-fiction (though that would be nice, he says, chuckling). Poetry for adults is a hard sell, but every bookstore I know stocks a fair number of volumes for adults. Why is this not the case for MG kids? Yes, MG adventure, fantasy, and the like, are what sell, but can’t we find a little space for MG poetry?

Nuff said!

(Previously published in Aniprof says …)