Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 29, 2016

More on Verse Novels

Writing verse novels means trying to keep people turning pages, while also deepening with what we call poetry. And what is that? Coleridge wrote that prose is words in the best order, while poetry gives us the best words in the best order. His friend Wordsworth tells us that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. Both offer a good beginning, but we find something to argue about, too. Emily Dickinson wrote that she can recognize poetry if she feels as if the top of her head were taken off. And Mary Oliver wrote, “poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes led down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

“Poetry raises a high bar,” I tell my students. Poetry may be defined subjectively more often than novels are, and readers may have more expectations of something higher or deeper than they find in fiction.

“And there’s another bar,” a student pointed out. “Lots of people hate this hybrid form.”

Yes, there’s that. From time to time well-educated people think it’s a fine idea to tell me that they hate verse novels. Um, okay. You know I write them, right?


We do our best to put tension into narrative, which we can learn about from E. M. Forster, including his insight that plot asks for elements of mystery, which means that part of the mind must be left behind brooding, while the other part marches on. And then we try to tease forth lyrical moments.

At its best, a verse novel puts together poems in a way that makes each one mean more than it meant alone. And then I ask my students: Can every line both deepen and move the story forward? We wonder what makes a good verse novel, and why should or shouldn’t what we’re writing be in verse? We try to create a sense of moving forward, while leaving white space where we ask readers to pause to absorb or reflect.

We want something intimate, but we’re using conventions such as litany, alliteration, rhythm, and sometimes rhyme that aren’t part of everyday speech. John Stuart Mills wrote, “Every poem contains within itself an essential difference from ordinary language, no matter how similar to conversational language it may seem at first to be. Call it formality, compression, originality, imagination – whatever it is, it is essential… the space between daily language and literature is neither terribly deep nor wide, but it does contain a vital difference – of intent and intensity.”

Aiming for what is personal and universal, we’re bound to fall short, while hoping our efforts leave something. My students are courageous.


For more on poetry and the inspiration of hollyhocks and Emily Dickinson, please visit Margaret who is hosting Poetry Friday.




  1. I love these Novels in Verse. I wish they had been around when I was a kid.

    • I know! But hey, there’s a lot of things I wish were around when I was a kid. I did get to read in and under trees though! Thanks for stopping by.

      • My pleasure. I liked reading on a picnic blanket with a glass of lemonade and a few pretzels. 🙂

  2. I’m a big fan of verse novels, for just the reasons you outline, Jeannine – especially its ability to combine the personal and the universal. I am always heartened that my sixth graders feel the same way, too!

    • Yes, that is heartening to hear about your sixth graders. Teaching this course in summer, I had some teachers and librarians who reported the same. So good to hear!

  3. Thank you for articulating so clearly the magic of verse novels: each poem means “more than it meant alone,” moves the story forward, all while giving readers space “to pause to absorb or reflect.” A high bar, indeed!

    • We have to struggle with keeping the bar in sight, but not letting it daunt us. Thanks for writing, Catherine!

  4. I am working on a verse novel and find it thrilling and daunting for all the reasons you have written here. Is this too lofty a goal? Will I miss the mark? Why am I even trying? And yet, the work fills my soul like no other. I also love reading verse novels. Thanks.

    • Margaret, I’m so pleased to hear you’re working on a verse novel. And for the best of reasons, that soul-filling. This seems the only form I’ve taught in which that word “soul” comes up. It does set a lofty standard, but there’s the fulfillment, too, as we stumble and reach again. Wishing you patience and I look forward to reading.

  5. I believe those who do write verse novels are to be praised, and for these words from you, Jeannine: “At its best, a verse novel puts together poems in a way that makes each one mean more than it meant alone.” There are those, often tiny, hints at what came before, then moving forward to what “might” be next, and cleverly in a poem. I’ve loved your books, and others, too, love how they tell the stories.

    • Linda, thanks for being such a great reader and important advocate. What would so many of us do without you?

  6. This is one to “Keep As New.” And I was so happy to see your stack of books – from The Good Braider to Borrowed Names. Much to contemplate. Thank you, Jeannine!

    • Thanks, Sarah. One of many fine stacks. xo

  7. Thanks for your insights into my favourite form. I suspect that people who say they don’t like them haven’t read one are judging them unfairly. Still, to each their own. I choose to LOVE them.

  8. How many ways can I speak my love of verse novels? I think for me, the biggest difference between poetry and prose, is that in poetry (and verse novels) ever word must work to earn its place. There is no space for fillers. The emotions are beautifully, strongly laid bare for the reader. There is a vulnerability and fragility in verse. And that is why they are such a powerful, emotive read. There is no space for hiding in a clutter of the words. If that makes sense?

    A fascinating blog. Your quotes to start were rich and varied.

    • That makes perfect and lovely sense — thank you for being so articulate — meaning, I couldn’t agree more! Happy to share this poetry love with you – thanks for chiming in!

  9. I love hearing your insights into this form. One of the reasons I used it in “The Fattening Hut” was to soften the message. I think of it as a choice when deciding what is best for a certain story. It doesn’t work in every case but can often enhance a particular piece of fiction. Thanks for this.

    • Yes, we talked about this, with people trying out stories for which this wasn’t the best form, and we did find it best when we needed the margins you speak of to soften or step back then find our way back in. And with The Fattening Hut, also that crossing to a culture unfamiliar to most of us: the space gives a door. It’s lovely to have this form as a possible choice.

  10. Just ordered a copy of Borrowed Names. Maybe I will dust off my novel in verse and see if I can/want to resurrect it. Thank you for showing me some new books to investigate!

    • Thank you for ordering Borrowed Names, and I hope you are inspired to take a new look at your novel in verse. I love this form, though it’s not for every story, and am always happy to offer recommendations on this rich genre!

  11. Novels in verse are a new form of lit for me to explore, especially since I am so fond of the language of poetry and its conciseness.

    • Hi, yes, not every novel in verse lives up the sort of compression we may want, but when one does, it can make an impact. Have fun exploring, and be in touch if you want some recommendations!

  12. Thank you for these thoughts on verse novels. I accidentally started one (maybe, sort of) during poetry month last April, but I haven’t touched it since. I’m a little unsure what do do with it to make it really truly tell a story AND do what you said about making the whole more than just the parts. I’m not in a hurry. That seed will be there when I’m ready to plant it and see if I can coax it to bloom. Meanwhile, I’ll learn from the masters…like YOU!

    • Mary Lee, that’s very good to hear that you began a verse novel. It is always good to let them rest for a while, then see what shines, and if you can make it still shinier. Sometimes there is just one image you can bring out, polish up, and insert here and there to get a little pattern going. And simplicity has its own power, too. It’s a form that can seem daunting, but has a welcoming way, too!

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