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!

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!