Reading · Teaching

The Return of the Verse Novel

People tell me all the time they don’t like poetry.

They don’t get it; they don’t see why it has to be so hard. They think it’s pretentious—you should just say what you mean, already; why torture your words in to form? They think it’s out to trick them and to make them feel inadequate. They’re on guard and defensive.

I think that’s all wrong.

I think poetry is just distilled language, in sharper focus, with the volume turned up–pick a sense. It’s true some of the writers I teach want to challenge their readers, but it’s not the poetry that challenges, generally; it’s the content. Dante is not dense because he writes in terza rima; he’s dense because we don’t know enough of his historical and political context to get all his references, nor enough of his religious context to grasp his spiritual claims in their fullness.

But man, the guy can sing.

So I’m on a perennial quest, every term, to break down walls in people’s minds and help them feel poetry. And lately I’ve discovered a tiny resurgence of a genre I was not expecting: the verse novel.

On our last trip to Solvang, my daughter and I each bought, without consulting the other, a verse novel. I don’t know about you, but I have very little experience with verse novels, and the one that comes first to mind is the quite forbidding. The Ring and the Book by Robert Browning is a 600-page whopper that I bought as an ambitious undergrad and left on my shelf. 21,000 lines of iambic pentameter had intimidated even me, the poetry lover.

But there is new hope. My daughter picked up a book that is sort of a biography in verse of Joan of Arc: Stephanie Hemphill’s The Language of Fire. And I bought a retelling of the Minotaur’s story called Bull: A Novel by David Elliott. Then she read mine and I read hers, both in a sitting.

These are novels told in verse, published in 2019 and 2017, respectively, and I thought also of Jane Yolen’s 2018 Finding Baba Yaga, and realized this might be a thing. If it is, let me just shout from the rooftops, Hurrah! Because all three of these are wonderful—lively revisionings of a well-known story spun in readable, small spurts of poems.

The poems are mostly free verse—the kind of poem that makes me wonder why the poet chose to break the lines there… or they would if I weren’t swept up in the narrative. Some of them are visually poetic, and by that I mean the very way the words are presented on the page is beautiful. Some of Yolen’s have very, very short lines—two syllables. Or they build from short to long lines and back. Or they intersperse voices in italics. Elliott’s have pages that get progressively darker as Asterion the Minotaur’s perspective darkens.

This is good stuff, y’all. This is poetry that lets you in. It may be my predilections that lead me toward the myths and fairy tales (Joan’s legendary status notwithstanding), but they seem perfect subjects for this medium. You already know the story, or think you should. (Yolen’s first poem, in fact, is entitled “You think you know this story.”) So the content is not going to be the problem, as in Dante’s case. This time through, you just get to enjoy the show.

But all three of these are marketed for the Young Adult audience, which means that many readers will not know the stories. If this is the first introduction to these stories, that’s good too. They are more expansive than the myths, more personal than a “real” biography, more psychologically vivid than a fairy tale.

But they also get to sing.

And if they’re selling, that means young people are getting exposed to old stories through poetry. It’s brilliant, of course. (It always has been.) The poems are short, moving briskly through the narrative, switching voices, clapping back—even making Hamilton references–and because there are simply fewer words on each page, you get the sense that you’re flying through the tale. And that helps skittish readers feel like they accomplished something, which they absolutely have.

I hope what they’ve done is hopped on the bandwagon to revive a wonderful form. I hope that means more will come to my classes with less fear of poetry and more sense of its potential.

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