Five Guidelines for Free Verse

Over the past ten years, verse novels have become part of young adult literature. During that time, much controversy has evolved about how to classify these uniquely stylized books. Some believe it is simply a novel written in poetry, but that is not accurate. Virgil’s The Aeneid is considered an epic poem, but it is not a verse novel. Neither, are verse novels a collection of poems. As for the oddly-shaped lines on the page, some refer to those as lineated prose. Award winning poet and writer, Helen Frost, says this: “I prefer to term ‘novels-in-poems’ because ‘verse’ is so often a word that non-poets use when referring to poetry. ”

After recently completing my own free verse manuscript, I have come to have a deeper appreciation for this challenging art form. These stories have both the lyricism of poetry and a narrative story structure. Michael Symmons Roberts states it best. “A verse novel can only be written in conscious awareness of the novel as a form.” This is true, but while prose focus on character and story, I believe verse novels also focus on language, imagery, and emotion. This is why each word must be carefully picked. Each line break must be deliberate. The author does this with one specific purpose: to connect with the reader on a deeply emotional level. The line breaks mirror the readers’ breath and rhythm. They can slow the pace with one word per line, or quicken it with a stream of words with no spaces. Although many argue free verse novels have no rules, I have discovered that there are five helpful guidelines that seem to be followed in general.

  1. POETIC FORM – Some authors prefer open verse while others write in specific types of poetry. Pat Brisson used sonnets in her book, The Best and Hardest Thing. In Your Own Sylvia, Stephani Hemphill mirrors several of Plath’s own poems, providing her readers with a sense of this great poet’s style. The type of writing style is purposefully selected—a haiku versus a sonnet versus an open verse—to better unearth the flavour of the story. How the story appears on the page, what is said, and how it is said are all guided by the style framework. Choosing the correct poetic form will help develop the appropriate poetic bead.
  2. INDIVIDUALITY – Every poem must act like a single independent bead. It must stand alone to capture a precise dark moment, show a vibrant character change, a colored emotional scene, or an inspiring crystal thought. These poems must be able to carry the weight of the words individually, separate from the whole. They must be unique and able to stand alone .
  3. CONNECTIVITY – Some verse novels have cause and effect stories. Some do not. The focus of the verse novel tends to be on emotional moments and scenes that are connected to the story’s theme or idea. The reader gains impressions through each individual poem, like a connect the dot, or impressionistic art.
  4. THE WHOLE – Each poem creates an impression and moves the story to the next poem and to the next, until eventually all of this interconnectedness evolves into a complete story being told one bead at a time. This is markedly different than in prose novels.
  5. VISUAL POETRY – Unlike prose, verse novels have the freedom to employ visual art to stir the visual senses along with the aural. With the use of purposeful line breaks, imaginative use of white space and creative punctuation, or even no punctuation at all, verse novels present a more stimulating read.

Not ever novel is suited to verse. Free verse are stories that are best told through concise language, visual imagery, poetic structure and story rhythm. A good example of a verse novel that mirrors story rhythm in the verse is Heartbeat by Sharon Creech. In addition, verse novels tend to be written in close first person point-of-view. This requires a deep introspection on the protagonists part. On the other hand, it also can be used as a multiple point-of-view as is done by Dana Walrath in Like Water on Stone.

Interested in free verse? Below are a few of my own favorites in addition to the ones mentioned above.
 Paper Hearts by Meg Wiviott
The Weight of Water by Sarah CrossanWitness by Karen Hesse  Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

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