Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 6, 2016

Verse Novels: What Bears Repeating


Picking flowers for the bud vase, I remind myself, “Not too much.”


It’s a good way to start a morning of writing poetry, though teaching a course in verse narratives, well … I’m stacking up books and scribbling more notes than will ever get spoken in class, particularly since I’m sharing a table with nine smart and vocal grad students. I try not to talk too fast and remember Maxine Kumin’s words: “A poem is a small thing. It’s fragile, and you don’t want to overcrowd it.”

Verse novels are bigger and sturdier. Still, even as we advance the story, we need the compression of imagery or other strategies to elevate the form beyond broken lines. We want narrative that is brightened or leavened by lyric, or what Mary Oliver refers to as a coiled moment ready to spring. Tess Gallagher calls too much narrative slog in verse the presentational mode. She asks poets to aim for a sense of direction formed by value and judging. What’s on the page should be there not just because it happened or could happen. It should be of consequence.


Fairy tales remind us of the power of what’s brisk and concise, and when they’re used to shape verse may give an echo of what we’ve heard before. We’re always paring, but repetition can bring readers into a poetic rhythm. Repeated words or phrases at the beginning of the lines are what some poets call anaphora, or more informally litany or incantation. Repeated words such as Let, Listen, Behold, can cast a sort of spell, setting us free to nod, tap our feet, and switch from one kind of paying attention to another that might be deeper or more joyful. We find litany in psalms, Walt Whitman, Goodnight, Moon, ocean waves, and breath. In Kwame Alexander’s Crossover, one poem begins “Mom, since you asked, why am I so angry,” and is followed by a series of lines beginning with “Because,” repeated like a bouncing basketball, one student noted. The central metaphor of a crossover shows up as a basketball term, a crossing between brothers, and moving between life and death, offering another pattern. So do the repeated formats of dictionary-like definitions, all beginning with the universal and moving to the personal.

We’re reading some sonnets with the echoed sounds of rhymes and sestinas with words reappearing at the ends of lines, but also find that sometimes repeated shapes of poems, such a series of couplets or tercets that reoccur give form enough. Always there are questions, such as when do formal elements take us out of the story and when do they bring us deeper in? Someone compared Crossover’s theme of basketball to being like poetry. The sport may look spontaneous and even chaotic, but there are lots of rules and form behind all that movement. Oh, my students make me happy.



  1. Oh, and you make me happy with your flowing sentences, simple and full, and your wealth of knowledge, and your sensitivities, and your happiness in your students.

  2. Oh, how I wish I could be in your class!

  3. Great post! I love verse novels and want to finish the one I started many years ago. It’s so much harder than it appears to keep true “verse” in a verse novel.

    • Thanks — I hope you keep going. Yes, it’s hard to get a balance of just enough forward movement and just enough lyric. You can do it!

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