Posted by: jeannineatkins | March 15, 2013

Beyond Broken Lines: What Makes a Verse Novel?

A few days ago at the Associated Writing Program conference in Boston, I was lucky to attend several panels about writing poetry. The question of what a verse novel is was raised in a session called “It Could Always Be Verse.” Helen Frost, author of the forthcoming SALT, answered poetically, comparing verse and prose to water and land, and saying that a verse novel is neither one nor the other. She cautioned about how narrative’s need for clarity can weigh down the poetry. Lesléa Newman mentioned how verse is a good fit for intense subject matter and that she chooses the form when it can do something she can’t do in prose. She gave the example of how in her collection OCTOBER MOURNING, which is a response to the murder of Matthew Shepard, as a poet she could personify the fence and stars and let them tell stories that a journalist, for instance, could not. She noted that the repetition some forms call for let her go deeper with each round. Marilyn Nelson, author of books including CARVER: A LIFE IN POEMS, said that she does not write verse novels, but considers herself a verse historian, a title she was given by a seventh grade girl. She said that as a formalist her definition of verse has to do with rhythm that’s intentionally made different from prose. This combined with being book length gives the double pleasure of narrative and verse.

Meg Kearney, whose books include THE GIRL IN THE MIRROR about a teen dealing with wanting to know her birth parents, felt the form was right for this as poetry’s white space reflects the silences of a family who could talk about some things, such as the moment the mom and dad got a call that a baby was waiting, but not at first the daughter’s wondering about her birth parents. She spoke of each poem representing a scene or emotional state that moved the story forward, using “the tool of the line break, which layers meanings, creates tension and rhythm, and undercuts expectations.”

In a session called Staggered Tellings: Immediacy, Intimacy, and Ellipses in the Verse Novel, Kevin Young, author of ARDENCY: A CHRONICLE OF THE AMISTAD REBELS, spoke about wanting to reclaim the word epic as used by Ezra Pound, and noted that one important thing about poetry is that there is no division into fiction and nonfiction sections. Poetry naturally lets us move back and forth between truth and imagination. Rita Dove, former poet laureate and author of SONATA MULATTICA, told us how this book was inspired by seeing a lone black violinist on a biopic of Beethoven, wondering who he was, finding the bare bones about George Bridgetower’s life via Google, then becoming obsessed with a story she first resisted telling, not wishing to spend years with men from eighteenth century Europe. She was pulled in for about five years, and felt bereft when she finished the book. She spoke of knowing the basic plot points, so that her work became an “excavation of a life.”

I didn’t speak on a panel about poetry, but in the hallway, some friends asked me about what I think makes a work poetry. I muttered this or that, but now that I’m before my computer hope I can be clearer about why I love to read history and poetry together. The elevated language of poetry can shed light on what’s wrongly been forgotten. In BORROWED NAMES, I worked around big moments that made the women famous, and focused more on what happened before and after them, which may be as important as what might happen in a family between posed snapshots. I used common moments to frame poems and let us see bigger ones from a more intimate angle than one usually taken by historians. These ordinary moments can connect an extraordinary person with the rest of us, and using devices such as alliteration or metaphor, repeating sounds or imagery, was a way to suggest those links. Each line should have a weight and a reason for being there. A clunky sound may be forgiven in a novel in which readers are gripped by characters, but a thud in a poem may stop the reader. Line breaks can offer a way to enter silence that may tease out a feeling.

I like beginning with facts, and using them as a framework, then inviting in my imagination and that of readers. Poetry gives me a license to do this, for as Kevin Young pointed out, this is a form that historically blends fiction and fact. I read primary and secondary sources with an eye out for things such as who quarreled with brothers, messed up on tests, or kept a spectacularly untidy room. I read a lot and select ruthlessly, like a person who spends a long time in attic and returns with one small, revelatory object. A biographer or historian would be on more of a lookout for general patterns, which I watch for, too, but I depend upon small moments. Looking for the right word is like approaching possible treasure with proper reverence. As I polish until it shines like something sacred, I may find my way deeper into theme or plot. We know the rules of grammar for sentences and the beats and sounds of meter and rhyme in formal verse, but we may feel uneasy with free verse in which we get few clear ways to measure. Some say a definition of verse novel isn’t so important, but all of us working in the regions where verse and narrative cross should struggle to define what we do and why we do it.  What does the form tell us about the speed with which someone might read? In yet another panel, David Levithan, who both writes and edits verse novels, mentioned that all publishers seemed to have placed the form as sold to young adults under novels, which seems a good decision, as it’s likeliest to find readers there drawn to story but who may be invited into poetry. For Poetry Friday posts, please visit Check it Out.



  1. […] Jeanine wrote an overview of some panels on poetry at AWP focusing on definitions of verse novels. More as the links come in. If I missed you, please email me. […]

  2. Marvelous, Jeannine. Thank you!! It’s a post I’ll return to.

    • Thanks, Sarah — and for asking the question!

  3. Thanks you so much. Brilliantly stated!

  4. Thank you for writing what I’m thinking. Fantastic essay, Jeannine. (PS I thought of you last night when I purchased a book of poems by Dorianne Laux.)

    • I like to think what you think, Pamela. And nice to share a love of Dorianne Laux.

  5. I’ve learned from you to appreciate this story format, and love the characters even more, for the time you’ve spent in that attic. How fun, to admire the petticoats that shape their beautiful dresses, and to laugh about/learn from their unique forms of naughtiness.

    • You’re right, Melodye, to note the time in that attic. It’s not about glancing and grabbing, but dwelling, as you do in your own attics, I know.

  6. “which may be as important as what might happen in a family between posed snapshots” –with just a phrase, Jeannine, you explore worlds. You’re an inspiration.

  7. Thank you for this. I love the trend of verse novels. I recently read “Inside Out and Back Again,” and the poetic format was perfect for the story.

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. And I agree about “Inside Out and Back Again” fitting the sense of displacement and fragile steps toward belonging.

  8. This was a great post. One to pump me up about my upcoming workshop with Helen Frost.

  9. Thank you for this. You address many of the issues that I’m struggling with in my verse (or is it verse) novel in progress.

    • Ann, I’m glad it’s helpful. Maybe it’s not so much what’s decided re is this verse, but our struggle as we ask the question. Good luck with your hard work!

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