Recently, I was asked to teach a poetry workshop on longer works, specifically sequences and verse novels. It gave me a chance to pull out all the terrific books, collections and verse novels I’d read over the past few years, in order to share them with the group. Everything from Dorothy Hewett’s “Upside Down Sonnets” to picture books such as Janet Wong’s Night Garden and my own Now I Am Bigger to verse novels by Helen Frost, Karen Hesse, Sharon Creech and Allan Wolf.
I like to think of a poetry sequence as a mini verse novel, although not all sequences work this way. But where a sequence tells a story, I think it can. It means you can write ten or twelve poems (or more) that have a narrative behind them, and start to consider the other elements that a verse novel has.
These include voice and character, for a start, but also a sense of progression. Where are you taking the reader? Are you simply showing them different aspects of the same thing? A short example of this is Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, where each small poem is numbered. I would call this a “poem in parts” – you could stretch it to a sequence. I’ve seen poets who write, for example, a series of poems about their father or mother, or about a childhood or life event. Again, those poems fit together because they are about one thing, but they still would not be a mini verse novel to me.
A mini verse novel may well be the short story equivalent to the novel (of the novel?). It means you don’t have to write a book-length work, but you can still explore a narrative through poetry. Think of it as a short story in poems.
So these are the elements I think are important in a mini verse novel:
- · A balance – too much poetry or not enough narrative and it doesn’t work – you end up with chopped-up prose, or poems with no connections.
- · Poetic elements of figurative language and keen attention to line breaks and stanzas
- · It needs to be a story that will tell better in poetry, and it does need to have the elements of a story in terms of beginning, middle and end
- · A story that needs a lot of explanation or setting or dialogue etc generally won’t work
- · Rhyming the whole thing may kill you if you are not proficient at rhyme and form (look at Helen Frost’s work if you want to see it done really well)
- · Read, read, read what other verse novelists are doing – and learn to read critically – don’t accept that everything that says it is a verse novel actually is
- · Outlining will help but if you need to work by instinct, do – just be prepared to throw some poems out later
- · And be ruthless in revision
- · Recognise that much of the story will lie in the white space and you will need to learn how to use the white space as well as the language.
· When it feels like you have enough poems, stop. Give it some time, then go back and ask yourself what is the story you want to tell, and which two poems will start and end it. Those are your lighthouses.