Kaitlin Keller Discusses the Novel in Verse

Kaitlin Keller, our PQ intern, shares insight regarding the novel in verse and her accidental discovery of this genre.

The Novel in Verse

by Kaitlin Keller

What is a novel in verse?

Have you ever heard of the term “novel in verse?” I hadn’t two years ago when I started writing my own. After all, it’s not a common term—it has no shelf talker at Barnes & Noble, no section heading on the New York Times bestseller list. The novel in verse is an emerging subgenre with roots in, as its name suggests, poetry and fiction.

 The modern-day novel in verse is similar to the novel in that it contains some version or adaptation of the five pillars of fiction (setting, character, plot, theme and style), which distinguishes it from a long poem. The narrative arc is used to drive the story forward and create conflict…The novel in verse must tell a story with a central unification, complete with a beginning, middle and an end—like the novel. There must be a climax and subsequent conflict resolution. The work must also be of considerable length. There can be a single narrator or the story can be told from multiple points of view. Colloquial language or slang is often used. Dialogue is frequently included, although not to the extent it is used in the novel. The poet, however, relies on imagery instead of exposition to drive the story forward. The poems must function both individually and as part of the whole. The work must also have a unifying theme.

To put it quite simply, it’s a story told in poems.

Why write a novel in verse?

All poetry wants to be read. So it seems almost natural that poetic works began to reflect features of the most popular literary form. The novel, while a considerably younger genre than narrative poetry, is more accessible and more widely read. It is a clever guise for poetry to take in an attempt to trigger resurgence in popularity. Labeling a work a “novel in verse” gives the reader the notion that the work follows a narrative arc and has the classic features and functions of a novel, and thus also retains its fluidity. The novel is a genre readers are comfortable with and enjoy.

I’m often asked why I chose to write a novel in verse for my M.A. thesis. I’m still not absolutely certain. I suppose, in a way, it chose me—kind of like the way the music you love chooses you. The simple answer is it’s how my story wanted to be written. Have you ever had that magical moment as a writer where the characters and ideas that you dreamed up begin to move on their own and tell you where they come from and what they want? It was kind of like that. The evolution of my story is winding, and it still isn’t over.

I am first and foremost a poet. When I enrolled in Wilkes University’s Low-Residency Creative Writing program in the spring of 2009, there was no doubt in my mind I would pursue poetry. Then, in the fall of that year, as I was packing my apartment to move from North Carolina to New York, I rediscovered an old, unfinished fiction manuscript (my first and only) that had been sitting at the bottom of a box for nearly thirteen years. As I read it, the once-dormant tale immediately came alive again and I was possessed to give it an ending. As I furiously typed the eighty-eight-page conclusion, the story world and the characters began the metamorphosis into the story I have today—all by themselves. The characters became real; they developed their own personalities—new ones, independent of who they were in the unfinished manuscript. A more cohesive narrative began to take shape. And I, the pen master, merely held the wand and pointed. It was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had. I spent hours each day dreaming this world into a fictional reality.

I still had no intention of using this idea as the basis of my thesis; after all, I was in no way a fiction writer. I knew my prose left much to be desired, but when you’re writing with no intention of the manuscript ever seeing daylight, your fingers seem to fly across the keyboard with reckless abandon and your ideas are free to take shape without doubt or reluctance. The inner critic does not have a voice. This is when we write our truest, and sometimes our best, work. Our truest work forms a solid basis for revision, which has the potential to become our best work.

It was when I finished that draft and was on fire to write a sequel that I decided it may be worthwhile to use the story in an academic setting. After all, I practically lived in this story world—it consumed me, I breathed it—and figured if a seasoned writer helped me hone my craft, I may just have a marketable piece of writing! (Which was a foreign concept indeed—after all, I am a poet.)

For whatever reason, the manuscript wasn’t working as fiction. The words that had so easily inked themselves when no one was watching developed severe stage fright when the spotlight was on.

It wasn’t the story. No, the story was solid, and I knew that. What I learned is that the story knows how it wants to be told, and the writer can’t force it. After a brief hiatus, I decided to return to my roots. I’m not sure exactly when I decided to write a novel in verse—I do know that, when I started, I had no idea what a novel in verse was, or what other works existed that were similar to mine. In fact, until about halfway through my first draft I thought I could have very well been the pioneer of a brave new form! Everything I was doing, everything I was writing was completely experimental. I wasn’t sure if the story would even work as a series of poems. But it did.

What are some examples of the novel in verse?

It wasn’t until I started doing research for my Wilkes M.F.A. paper that I discovered what a novel in verse is, who the real pioneers of the journey are (sadly, it wasn’t me at all), and what its origins are. But that seems a little too clear cut. The truth is there is nothing solid or decided about this subgenre, at least not at present. The objective of my research was to read different types of poems—everything from the Homeric epic to modern-day Young Adult verse novels—and draw my own conclusions as to whether or not I would consider the works novels in verse or just long poems. What were the similarities and differences between the poems? What criteria does a work have to meet in order to be considered a novel in verse?
I pedaled through The Odyssey, slaved over John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and picked apart Modernist poems such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Ezra Pound’ The Cantos. I was introduced to some modern recreations of the epic, such as Michael Lind’s self-proclaimed epic The Alamo and Derek Walcott’s structural masterpiece Omeros.

I started to see what I would consider to be a novel in verse with Vikram Seth’s 1986 work The Golden Gate. This work started to take on more of a conversational tone. Its structure was still formal, but it told a cohesive story, complete with a beginning, a middle, and an end. As I read more, I began to file other works in this category, including Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, published in 1998. The subgenre really began to blossom, however, in the young adult (YA) genre.

YA novels in verse:

These works are predominantly confessional, or diary-like, and can be told by alternating voices or from multiple voices or points of view. Each poem in the verse novel is usually brief, spanning no more than a page or two, and functions dually as an individual poem and as a piece that contributes to and is an integral part of the work as a whole. The titles of the poems play a key role in explaining or setting the scene; they give the reader a sense of the subject that, without the title, may not otherwise make sense. The works tend to rely less on dialogue than other long poems and the traditional novel; instead they rely on imagery to evoke emotion from the reader. They commonly exhibit clever use of line breaks, creative punctuation (or sometimes forsake punctuation entirely) and employ a strong use of white space. Authors develop classic literary and poetic techniques in their works, such as symbolism, allusion and metaphor.

In 1995, Karen Hesse wrote Out of the Dust, a novel in verse from the point of view of a thirteen year-old girl living in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Crank and its numerous sequels, by Ellen Hopkins, followed a decade later and are probably the most recognizable examples of the YA novel in verse. What stands out about these works, as with most YA works, is the speaker is young, and therefore many of these stories are coming-of-age narratives. These works use simpler, more accessible language, which appeals to young readers and to a wider audience in general. A possible drawback to this approach, it can be argued, is that such simplicity of language strips the eloquence and beauty classically regarded as an inherent quality of poetic form.

What are the challenges of writing a novel in verse?

The choice to write a novel in verse depends on both the author’s and the story’s strengths. Some advantages to choosing this medium are that it provides freedom from or easy manipulation of chronological time and makes it easier to include multiple point-of-view characters or voices clearly. Some disadvantages include the challenge of keeping the language edgy and sophisticated and finding effective means to move the story forward, lacking the aid of prosaic exposition. The use of multiple points of view, especially if the work is non-linear, must be done with great caution to ensure clarity.

I believe the majority of the difficulty lies in finding a market for the novel in verse. There are a few small presses, such as Rose Metal Press, that specialize in publishing these hybrid genres, but even if one is lucky enough to win publication, the fact remains that poetry is still not as widely read as the novel. As of present, the chances of the work finding a mainstream audience remain small.

That’s no reason to shy away from the novel in verse, though. It’s a promising, blossoming form with much potential and can be an extremely rewarding process for the writer who wants to experiment with a hybrid of poetry and fiction, or to the writer like me who just can’t make up her mind. If the novel in verse subgenre continues to draw in talented writers, I’m confident it will not only be the next big literary trend but a great opportunity for young readers to discover the magical world of poetry.