Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Novel In Verse: Would You?

Until today, I'd never read a novel in verse -- at least not a kid's novel in verse. Yeah, I read Paradise Lost in college, and The Odyssey in high school. That counts, right? And even though I earned my M.A. in poetry writing, it never occurred to me to try to write fiction in verse.

But I started reading Inside Out and Back Again this morning, a middle grade verse novel by Thanhha Lai that's a finalist for this year's National Book Award. And as my blogging buddies know, Lai's subject fits perfectly into my research for novel number two (draft tbc during November Nano). Because Inside Out and Back Again is the story of a Vietnamese girl who immigrates to Alabama after the war.

So, the first question we might ask is, why write any novel in verse? A reviewer for School Library Journal rightly points out that a novel dealing with the immigrant experience might be uniquely suited for verse--because the narrator is somewhat estranged from both her native language and the new one she's supposed to be learning. The effect is "simultaneously intimate and isolating." I like that idea.

But I'm a snob.
I suppose my hesitation about novels in verse is because, well, I'm kind of a snob? I don't believe "verse" is just lines of narrative broken up into short lengths, like you might crack spaghetti to fit it into a smaller pot.
Any line of "verse" should have what my old poetry teacher, the late Donald Justice, called a "minute torsion," a turn or a twist or a flutter--of something ineffable, surprising, magical. A tension. A line of poetry should never fall flat. Anybody who thinks writing a verse novel is easier, because there are so many fewer words, has never struggled for weeks or months over a three-stanza poem. I have. It's been a long time, but I sure do remember how painful that can be.

Anyway, I'm down with Inside Out and Back Again. Lai's stanzas are economical; they read like haiku:

I vow
to rise first every morning
to stare at the dew
on the green fruit
shaped like a lightbulb.

I will be the first
to witness its ripening.

Look how spare, how pared down Lai's language is. As with all good poetry -- it's as if there's a spirit of something larger, richer, more meaningful, floating over each of these simple lines.

Have you ever thought about writing fiction in verse? Why or why not? Do you read verse novels? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  1. I haven't yet tried poetic prose, but I am very open. I love reading novels in verse. Two more I highly recommend to you are PERFECT (or indeed any) by Ellen Hopkins and SOLD by Patty McCormick.

  2. Thanks Joanna. I'll definitely read these. I've been meaning to read Ellen Hopkins and you've just given me the kick in the pants I needed.

  3. I am right now listening to Ellen's new one on my Ipod, TRIANGLES, her first adult novel. It's racy!

  4. I'm with you about the folks who thing it's easy to write in verse without the requisite training in poetry and the years necessary to master that aspect of writing craft. It is very different than narrative and uniquely suited to some subject matters. It's not something I can do, but I can appreciate it when it's done well.

  5. I don't think I've ever read a novel in verse. No reason, except that I haven't come across one. I wouldn't even attempt to try writing one of my own, I don't have the talent :-)

  6. I just finished a novel in verse the other day and I can honestly say: I couldn't pull it off.

  7. Actually, Ellen Hopkins was at the Wellington library last week. Very nice author.

  8. There's no possible way I could do it, lol. I'm no poet. But I have read a couple of novels in verse and they're amazing. REACHING FOR THE SUN was really good. I have total respect for the authors who can do this.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  9. I just finished Lai's novel, and I'm a convert. What a gorgeous, gorgeous book. I'll add Reaching for the Sun to my list, Becca. (Now I'm even thinking about trying my hand at a verse novel myself eventually).

  10. I think it would be REALLY hard to write a novel in verse. That said, I think I could benefit form it and learn a lot. I tend to be overly wordy. Maybe if I tried writing a novel in verse I'd stick to the bare bones. Then, if I wanted, I could turn it into prose afterwards :)

  11. "it's as if there's a spirit of something larger, richer, more meaningful, floating over each of these simple lines."

    This is lovely. You've stated it perfectly. I must read her book!

  12. Hi! Thanks for following my blog!

    I read a novel in verse once and it was a complete nightmare. I just couldn't get into it. I felt bad though because the writer was pretty good. I don't remember the name of the writer though.