Friday, July 18, 2008

Poetry Friday: Tell Me

Hello. I'm back and I need you. Your opinions and your advice.

When I finish the revisions for the novel I'm working on, I'll return to the partially completed drafts of two other projects. One's a novel in verse, a love story involving math and Rilke and the pursuit of the unknown. It's proceeding very slowly, needs research, and may be done some time in the next century. The other is a collection of YA poetry, a poetry slam in a magical setting, centos for frog princes and free verse in seven league boots---that sort of thing. I've written most of it, although the overall structure is sorely missing at this point, and may cause me much heartache later on.

So tell me, if you read novels in verse or themed collections of YA poetry, what's your favorite thing about them? Why do you read them, and what do you look for that you can't get from straight prose? In your opinion, what's the point of telling a story this way?

On the negative side, I know many aren't fans of verse novels which they see as merely prose in disguise, lines broken up on the page. You can tell me that again, if you like, but I'm also interested in other things that turn you off. And if you don't read these kind of books at all, why?

I'd really like to know. The good and the bad. Thanks.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Kelly Fineman, who introduces the new U.S. Poet Laureate.


  1. The pros of novels in verse: kids love them; there's lots of pretty white space on the pages; even though most of them are prosetry and not really poems, they do tend to use condensed language and emotion and teens respond to that.

    I do read some of them. I like the ones that are stories told in poems more than the ones that are just prose with lots of line breaks because then I feel that the "in verse" part was there for me. But I've read and loved some novels that claim to be in verse that I would argue aren't, and loved them anyhow. So.

    And I like themed collections. Although most of the themed collections I've read for the YA set weren't quite as tightly linked as yours sounds to be. (I'm thinking about Faith & Doubt, What Have You Lost?, and that he said/she said book edited by Naomi Shihab Nye and Paul Janeczko.

  2. I like both, but whether it's a novel in verse or a themed collection, I want the poetry to really be VERY GOOD POETRY; not just, like Kelly said, prose with lots of line breaks. I'm not too worried about you on that account.

  3. I've read quite a few novels in verse, and I've put a few down because the voice isn't right for the character--like I'm reading it JUST KNOWING that this character wouldn't have the vocabulary or technical expertise to write or speak the poetry I'm reading. I just can't get beyond that. This isn't YA, but one of the reasons I so love Love that Dog is because Creech gets that voice dead-on. She totally fools me and I believe it's a kid. I also like how she makes the poetry a seamless part of the plot; I can't really see that book written in any other form.

    For what it's worth, I'd totally read a love story involving math and Rilke.

  4. Sara,

    Welcome back--and happy belated blogoversary. I haven't been reading blogs or writing for my own blog much lately.

    Regarding verse novels and themed collections for older kids, I agree with Eisha and Kelly.

    I think Karen Hesse's OUT OF THE DUST is one of the finest YA books I've read. Her verse novel, her images so evoke the time about which she writes, a reader almost feels herself there. I doubt this book would have had the same impact had it been written in prose.

    I also love Cynthia Rylant's WAITING TO WALTZ: A CHILDHOOD, which is a series of poems and not a verse novel. I think the book may be semi-autobiographical. I think her poems seem heartfelt.

    Other themed collections that relate stories that I recommend:



    - Brenda Seabrooke's JUDY SCUPPERNONG

    - Craig Crist-Evans's MOON OVER TENNESSEE: A BOY'S CIVIL WAR JOURNAL, which is classified as fiction

    I also like Paul Janeczko's BRICKYARD SUMMER, which tells of a young man's experiences and the people of a milltown in New England.

    Good luck with your two writing projects!

  5. I come to verse novels with the assumption that verse requires more of me than prose -- more thought, a slower pace, more pausing to reflect. In my more mature moods, I'll take one on.

    Your first idea sounds intriguing! I hope it's finished well within the next century... while I'm still around!

  6. Sara, I'm a boy. As a boy I've had my share of serious poetry and, after a while, it becomes a chore. When I get to read light verse - like limericks and nonsense rhymes and stuff - I am told that it is frivolous and not as important as regular poetry. When I see a novel in verse I think "here come some hard work."

    The longer a poem is, the harder it is. That is a fact. When you see it on the page it looks like an endless paragraph. I want short lines mixed in, I want dialogue, I want my eyes to have a rest. Some of these novels in verse have shorter poems in them but a lot of the ones I saw had each character writing their verse and I had to keep going back and figuring out who was connected to what. More work.

    And there's no action, because poetry is all about feelings. And if you recall, I am a boy, and boys don't like to read about feelings. Or at least not ALL about feelings.

    I like poetry that rhymes because it makes me feel smart, like I'm "getting it." It's is also clever and having tried to write rhyming poetry I appreciate how hard it is to do. Non-rhyming poetry, especially in books, makes me wonder why that author did it. Did they not have enough words to fill a whole book unless it was spaced out? Are they trying to be arty or snooty or show off? I think that if a book is going to be in verse the reason why should be clear and make sense from the beginning.

    I know girls who like to write down stuff in their diaries, and I know girls who like poetry, but I've never known a girl to write her journal in poetry. At least not for more than a couple of days. So if a book is all verse, and it's from a girl's point of view, I kinda think it's fake. And if it's in a boy's voice I *know* it's fake.

    My English teacher showed me this poem called "Gunga Din" and another one called "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" and they were sorta long and I liked those. They rhymed and they had some action in them, and if they were as long as a book I might have read them.

    Now you asked about collections. I think most collections have, like, two or three good things in them and the rest feels like extra. The problem is that everyone has a different group of two or three poems they like. I guess it depends. No matter what, it should have a good mix of serious and funny. It should be like a display shelf full of treasures, unique and perfectly arranged. And not dusty.

    I hope that helps.

    love, david
    (the above message was written by my 13 year old self)

  7. I like reading and writing in verse, or free verse, because it gets to the heart of the matter quickly. If it's done well, the reader does not need extra adjectives to fill a void, it's all right there in the words the author selects. Also, free verse can be very interactive...words in different locations on the page...scattered, like an emotion or a dream or wild thought.
    It's an art I'm trying to capture.

  8. Thank you, commenters (of all ages, real or inner!) This was incredibly helpful.

    I'm still listening, if anyone else has an opinion. I just wish we could all sit around and discuss this in person.

  9. Yes, Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust is indeed an excellent example of a novel in verse.

    Why do I like it? It's lovely to read aloud and it packs more story into fewer words, so that struggling readers (ESL for example) can get more yield for effort invested.

  10. Out of the Dust and Make Lemonade -- two of the best books ever, free verse or not. The very last page of Make Lemonade will always be seared into my brain -- not because anything momentous happened plot-wise but, because with her mastery of composition and the ability poetry has to distill a moment to its very essence with such elegance and economy, Wolff nailed one single beautiful moment in time.

    Man, now I wanna go read that book again.

  11. I would strongly recommend Lisa Ann Sandell - both of her books but especially "Song of the Sparrow".

    I can't tell from your post the age that your aiming for - more in the MG spectrum or up in the YA/high school spectrum? Poetry seems to work equally for boys and girls in the 12 and under age and then skews big time toward the girls the older you get.

    I honestly read very little of it for older readers as I don't think I'm qualified to review it. (Now if we're talking war poetry like Sassoon and Owen, then I'm all over it.)

    This is one of those things where I wonder if what adults like is going to be what teens like...if that makes any sense.

  12. I like it when an author really uses the form of poetry to get the book across- poetry can be visual and that can really make something pop.

    There's a poem in What my Girlfriend Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones that is called, IIRF "I Do Not Have A One Track Mind." The actual poem is just the words "Yeah, right." over and over and over again, forming a picture of breasts on the page.

    Not overly poetic, but it makes a point in a way prose couldn't.

  13. Hi Sara! Isn't it SO tempting to jump ahead to those new projects instead of revising? I know I am salivating to get on to a new project! Soon. Soon. . .

    As for novels in verse, I am one of those who has never gotten into them. I'm not sure why, to tell you the truth. I guess when I see the scantiness of words on the page I make an assumption that I'm not going to get lost in a big, juicy sumptuous story like I love. I'm not saying this is true, it's just that the form transmits an idea of "skimpiness" to my brain as soon as I see it. But I am open to recommendations!

    this is what I think a YA poetry book could look like (parts of it anyway) I always loved the way e e cummings' poems look on a page. check out the other cool books under exhibition and collection.

  15. whoops. the link didn't come through. I'll try again.
    (The Arthur & Mata Jaffe Collection: Books as Aesthetic Objects. See "The Terrific Days of Summer".


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