By Carolee Dean
Are verse novels a YA or middle-grade fad, a new art form, or something else? Are they even really poetry? Were there verse novels before Out of the Dust won the Newbery in 1998?
In truth, verse novels have quite a long history.
And if we go back just a litter further in time we find Homer (not Simpson), who lived around 850 B.C.E. – the presumed creator of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” two Greek epic poems. Two of the oldest surviving works of Western literature happen to be written in verse. There was a very good reason for this. When they were first created, these epics were not written down at all. The bard would travel from town to town reciting the stories from memory and using the structure of verse was, in part, a mnemonic strategy.
These four classics were all written in Dactylic Hexameter, a type of meter with six feet (or beats). A dactyl has one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables.
There are additional rules, but it gets complicated, and this form is rarely used in English because of the way our language stresses vowels and consonants.
A few hundred years later came “Beowulf,” written by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. It is an Old English heroic epic poem, written in alliterative long lines and it represents one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature. Alliteration was the mainstay of Old English poetry. Two syllables alliterate when they begin with the same consonant sound.
Sometimes we don’t recognize that these older works were written in verse because the poetry form is lost in the translation, but in “Beowulf,” Seamus Heaney (2000) tried to stay true to the original poetry form. Note his use of alliteration in this line:
“a balm in bed to the battle-scarred Swede.”
Written between 1308 C.E. and 1321 C.E., Dante’s “Divina Commedia” is considered not only the paramount work of Italian literature, but one of the greatest works of all time. Dante Alighieri is believed to have created the form called terza rima for this epic. Terza rima consists of a series of tercets, three line stanzas, with an interlocking rhyming structure of ABA, BCB, CDC, etc. Any number of stanzas may be used, but the sequence always ends with a rhyming couplet.
The following is an example of terza rima from Forget Me Not (Simon Pulse, October 2012), my new paranormal verse novel.
“My House” page 171
Back in my room I lie awake all night,
tossing, turning. Getting out of bed,
I look out the window at the sky,
say a silent prayer, and bang my head
against the glass. Hear my father’s voice
as he complains about the cost of bread,
ingratitude, why Mom can’t make a choice
to leave the couch. She’s stuck to it like glue.
I hear him threaten that he’ll use some force
to get her moving. Says he’ll show her who
is boss. I hear him stumble as he falls
into a chair, too drunk to follow through.
I sneak out of my room and down the hall.
Heading for the door, I hear him cry.
Hear him whisper even as he bawls.
If there really is a God then why
did Frankie have to be the one to die?
Although they aren’t novels, parts of some of Shakespeare‘s plays (i.e. “Julius Ceasar” and “Hamlet”) were written in blank verse – unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter consisting of ten syllables per line with a stress on every second syllable. Other plays like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” contain a significant amount of rhyme. Other examples of verse novels include Paradise Lost by John Milton, The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning, and Idylls of the King by Tennyson. Shorter narrative poems similar in length to short stories include Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”.
Returning to the questions posed at the beginning of this article, we find that verse novels are one of the oldest forms of literature. Many of our best known works, classics that have withstood the test of time, were written in verse. This is not always recognizable because the form is often lost in the translation. Like many modern verse novels, most of these structures had little to do with rhyme.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of this art form, mostly in YA and middle grade novels. Verse novels have been the recipients of coveted awards in recent years such as Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (Newbery, 1998), Keesha’s House by Helen Frost (Printz Honor, 2004), Your Own Sylvia: A Verse Portrait of Sylvia Plath by Stephanie Hemphill (Printz Honor, 2008), and Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (National Book Award, 2011).
The poetic merits of verse novels are not always obvious, especially those written in free verse. With this loose structure, some pose the question of whether or not the contents are true poetry. If the reader turns to any given page, the offering found there might not be apparent as a stand alone poem. It should be independent, true, but it is also part of a larger mosaic.
As Caroline Starr Rose, author of the middle grade verse novel May B. (Shwartz and Wade), likes to say, “Each poem is like a square in a patchwork quilt. It is complete, and yet at the same time part of a larger design.”
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When judging the value of an individual poem found within a verse novel, it might be interesting to think about it in terms of picking up a collection of one of the great poets and turning to any given page in the volume. Most of the time we read these fine wordsmiths in anthologies containing several poets, with only their finest and most well known works included.
Try reading two hundred pages of Robert Frost or William Butler Yeats at one sitting. Not everything they produced will seem as brilliant and inspiring as their “Greatest Works.” For that matter, read a random page of “Beowulf” or the “Divina Commedia.” The whole is more important than the sum of the parts, and a single page may not work as a stand-alone poem.
It is important to remember that a verse novel is both verse and a novel. We would never judge the merits of a novel by assessing the worth of one page at a time.
The bottom line is that whether a novel is written in verse or traditional prose, the most important question is whether or not it is a good story. That is, after all, the real reason why tales like “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” “Metamorphoses” and “The Aeneid” have survived the test of time.
Carolee Dean is the author of Take Me There (Simon Pulse) the story of a boy who can’t read or write but dreams of becoming a poet. Her paranormal verse novel, Forget Me Not (Simon Pulse, October 2012) explores a girl facing her demons in a high school filled with ghosts.
Join Carolee on The Ghost Tour, starting Oct. 3. See also Carolee on The Making of a Book Trailer: Behind the Scenes and Can I Write If I Can’t Read? Famous Poets Who Overcame Reading Disabilities.