28 Jun

Verse Novel #1: Love That Dog

Posted in Book Reviews, Literature, Poetry

This week, I read Love That Dog by Sharon Creech as the first of the verse novels for the Verse Novel Challenge.

In this story, the protagonist Jack resists his teacher’s assignment to write poems in a weekly journal.  As he responds to his teachers comments and the poems he reads in class, we learn more about Jack, his dog Sky and his story.  What I especially liked about this book was how we only hear Jack’s voice and his side of the dialogue with his teacher, but from his responses, we can infer what the teacher is saying.  In taking this approach (rather than giving us also the teacher’s voice) Creech puts the reader in Jack’s shoes and allows us to become fully absorbed in the story.

I’m not usually one to gush, but this book was so good I read it in one sitting.  OK, I’ll admit, it’s also a really short book, so it’s not as though “one sitting” was really a stretch.  (It was more like the dead time between two meetings.)  Still, even if I had had some appointment to run off to, it would have been hard to tear myself away.

I wish I had read this book sooner and included it in my literature thesis because it’s a perfect example of the form of a book following function.  In particular, the experience of reading the book makes us feel as though we are Jack, reading the poems in class (which Creech wisely includes in the back of the book for the reader’s reference) and talking to the teacher through poems.

And you can’t beat that first poem:

September 13

I don’t want to
because boys
don’t write poetry.

Girls do.


29 Apr

Journey to Poetry

Posted in Craft, Poetry

Today Lady Glamis at Literary Lab posted a follow-up to her poetry discussion and it got me thinking about what it is that I love about poetry and why some of it resonates with me and some of it doesn’t.  In other words, why did I go from having such a visceral hatred of poetry to suddenly rediscovering its beauty.  Let me sum it up.

It’s not that I dislike poetry, I just dislike bad poetry.

Let me backtrack a little bit.  For starters, I should be the last person to complain about bad poetry because I was a purveyor of bad poetry myself, once upon a time.  When I was a teenager I was obsessed with poetry–in particular sonnets.  I scribbled hundreds of terrible sonnets in the margins of my textbooks, all of the poems about how unjust the world was and how misunderstood I was.  Of course, at the time, I thought they were seriously deep, but now I’m glad those textbooks have long since been recycled.  To tell the truth, writing poetry was my way of passing the time during boring classes and looking back, while the fruit of all this writing was pretty awful, at least it kept my brain working.

My resistance to poetry began when I started taking writing classes.  The tricky thing about poetry is that there are so few words and language is boiled down to its barest essentials so when it’s good, it can be very very good, but when it’s bad it’s horrid.  This makes poetry especially challenging to discuss in a workshop setting.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in the workshop process; I think everyone should be free to submit rough, messy drafts in a workshop and learn to make them better.

The trouble with poetry began in one of the classes I took some years ago, where I sensed a certain defensiveness around the poetry submissions that I didn’t get when reading fiction pieces.  It was as though everyone in the class would back away in deference.  After all, this wasn’t fiction, it was poetry and poetry was personal so who were we to critique it?  And when I raised my hand and said “Um… I’m sorry, but I just don’t get what the poem’s trying to say” the class struck me down so fast I thought I hallucinated the whole thing.

Thing is, as a result of repeated exposure to less-than-wonderful poetry, for several years I assumed that the only reason I didn’t “get” these poems was because I was too dumb.  Then, I discovered Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius (which I reviewed earlier this month) and this book is in large part responsible for my change of heart regarding poetry.  Suddenly, I realized that I wasn’t too dumb and I could make sense of poetry if I really tried.  Better yet, I enjoy it even if I didn’t understand it completely and simply relish in the language.  The best part was, I could even try my hand at it and write some poems of my own.

And here, of course, was where the real journey began.

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24 Apr

How Awesome are these Posters?

Posted in Poetry

Each year, the Academy of American Poets creates a poster to celebrate National Poetry Month.  To see posters from this year and past years, check out their poster gallery.  My two favorite posters are the one from 2005 designed by Chip Kidd and the one from 2009 designed by Paul Sahre.
I love the Emily Dickinson quote and something about the vintage dress coupled with the minimalist design seems so ethereal and truly haunted.  The way the meaning of the imagery and the meaning of the words work together are what make this poster design so quintessentially Chip Kidd’s style.  When I looked through the gallery, I guessed that he had designed this one before even seeing his name.

And this one is my all-time favorite.  The letters drawn on a steamed-up mirror capture the spirit of this quote.  After all, it’s a mirror but it doesn’t reflect (or distorts the reflection at the very least) so while the person asking the question may be confronting himself in the mirror, it’s not really himself, but a blurred reflection.  Bonus points to anyone who  can tell me what teen novel uses this quote and in what context.

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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.


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