23 Apr

Verse Novels

Posted in Literature, Poetry

I begin with a challenge: Caroline Star Rose of Caroline By Line has initiated a Verse Novel Challenge and I’m going to do it!

Here’s how it works:  Go to Caroline’s blog and leave a comment on her post “Verse Novel Challenge” so she knows you’re participating.  Then start reading verse novels.  If you make it to 5, you get entered in a drawing for a ARC of her upcoming book May B.

I haven’t decided which books I’m going to read yet, but I have narrowed down the list:

  • Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
  • Witness by Karen Hesse
  • Foreign Exchange: a mystery in poems by Mel Glenn
  • Heartbeat by Sharon Creech
  • Realm Of Possibility by David Levithan
  • Fearless Fernie by Gary Soto
  • Stop Pretending: What Happened When my Big Sister Went Crazy by Sonya Sones

Notice that there’s no Virginia Euwer Wolff on the list.  It may seem odd–especially since I loved True Believer and have been meaning to read Make Lemonade for some time–but there is a reason.

Apparently Wolff considers her writing not as verse but as “prose with line breaks.”  In an interview with The Horn Book (2001), Virginia Euwer Wolff said: “Writing my prose in funny-shaped lines does not render it poetry. And there’s nobody more aware of that than I.”

Which leads me to the central question of this post: if an author does not consider his/her work as verse, can we the readers appropriate it as such?

My gut response is no.  If an author says his/her work is prose, then I will read it and accept it as prose, even if there are line breaks and it looks like verse.  Certainly, poetry is more than just prose rearranged with breaks in funny places.  Poetry has an element of surprise and a musicality that differs from prose.  In my mind, prose emphasizes character and story before language whereas poetry puts language first.  The line breaks in poetry serve as parallels to breath and rhythm, whereas prose with line breaks must focus first on telling the story.

For this reason, much as I would love to put True Believer and Make Lemonade on my list of verse novels to read, I can’t in good conscience bring myself to do it.  I’ll probably read Make Lemonade anyway, and maybe reread True Believer for good measure and for fun.


Comments on this post

  1. Caroline Starr Rose says:

    So glad you're joining in!

    This is the first time I've heard TRUE BELIEVER not described as a verse novel. Interesting that VE Wolff doesn't want her work do be described as poetry. I found the rhythm and structure to mirror the mc's educational growth. All felt pretty poetic to me.

    In my opinion, you can't tell a story without the character coming first. The same holds true for verse novels, lovely language or not. 😉

    1. gabi says:

      Good point about character coming first. I guess verse novels have to straddle that line both carrying a story and building a strong character but also relishing in the poetry of language.

      I keep trying to put my finger on what it is exactly that differentiates verse from prose-with-line-breaks. I can't seem to put my finger on it but I know it when I see it…?

      1. Caroline Starr Rose says:

        I have to say, I'm no expert here. There are books classified as verse novels that aren't super poetic and have probably been grouped with the NiVs because of their visual similarity.
        Some might have worked better as straight prose, others not.

        I err on the side of generosity and call anything that wants to be called a NiV a Niv (well, maybe even those that don't want to be classified this way…still feeling funny/sad about TRUE BELIEVER).

        I do not consider myself a poet in any way. Funny to realize the only writing I've sold up to thise point has been poetry and a novel-in-verse.

        The pressure to be poetic… I can't approach a story that way. I like to come in the back door, seeing a NiV as a way to cut straight to the heart of the mc. Because my story deals with isolation and a learning/reading disability, I also liked the way a NiV provided plenty of "head time" for my mc. Language-wise, I could play with structure, rhythm, and sound as far as May's (mc's) reading goes. For this piece to work, I found freedom in poetic structure.

        Great discussion!

        1. gabi says:

          Thanks for your great comments!

          Personally, I would love to consider TRUE BELIEVER a novel-in-verse because I have tremendous respect for verse and I love that book. I used to think I didn't "get" poetry but now I really admire the genre and those who write it (mostly because I've tried my hand at it and have seen how difficult it is). I have to say, there's something especially comforting about a beautiful poem or piece of verse. They're like good friends and can be great company in the quiet moments.

          I'm fascinated by the subject of your novel and looking forward to reading it when it comes out!

          1. Caroline Starr Rose says:

            Thanks, Gabi. It's pretty thrilling to hear when others are interested in what I've created. I'm excited to hone MAY B. with my editor.

            Here's to more great discussion!

            And I love the idea of a poem being a friend. Absolutely true.

            From here on out, let's both consider TB a NiV. 😉

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