- Why Genre Matters:A Case for the Importance of Aesthetics in the Verse Memoirs of Marilyn Nelson and Jacqueline Woodson
In a 2016 article in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, Giselle Liza Anatol discusses Jacqueline Woodson's memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), in light of the "postcolonial Gothic," arguing that reading the book as Gothic (in the tradition of African-American Gothic works such as Virginia Hamilton's Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush or Toni Morrison's Beloved) may help disrupt "the stark border that has arisen between realist genres and fantastic ones in literature for young people" (405–6). She laments that Woodson's book "will be discussed primarily—and perhaps exclusively—as a work of African American realism, as literary nonfiction, or as aligned with the conventions of bildungsroman or life writing" (405). Anatol argues that the "dualism" she identifies as "the stark border" between the genres of realism and fantasy "only serves to inhibit the publishing world's acceptance of narratives that refuse to fit into easy categories and thus restricts the publication of more texts by African American and African diasporic writers who have been raised in cultures that refuse such sharp distinctions." Anatol's argument is compelling. However, except for a footnote in which she notes that it is a "stunning collection of poetry" (417), she does not discuss Brown Girl Dreaming as poetry. For there is another stark border in the field of children's literature studies, the border between children's fiction and other genres of children's literature, especially poetry.
Mike Cadden has described the verse novel as a hybrid form that occupies a "place between poetry and drama . . . drama and the novel," a form that "serv[es] as a nexus among the three genres," by combining "the [End Page 109] most complementary aspects of those forms" ("Verse Novel" 26). He argues that critics "may be pursuing a false choice by insisting that the verse novel be one thing or the other." The "'problem' of the verse novel," he argues, does not lie in "reconciling the poetic and prosaic" (21). Looking at the verse novel as a hybrid affords the teacher with considerable pedagogical possibilities. "Studying the verse novel," Cadden writes, "will build in students an appreciation for other blends and crossovers so common in contemporary literature, such as multimedia texts, multigenre texts, intertextuality, and cross-audience texts" (26). Nevertheless, there is a problematic subtext in Cadden's discussion in his suggestion that a focus on the poetic qualities of verse novels is a dead end because, especially in the case of novels composed of free verse lyrics, the authors aren't writing poetry at all, but "enjambed prose written to emphasize a preferred pace and rhythm of speaking to the self" (22). While Cadden includes poetry as part of his potentially productive hybrid, he dismisses the necessity of paying critical attention to poetry and poetics in evaluating the book-length verse narrative. Emphasizing "novel" over "verse," he underestimates the importance of the verse novelist's skill as a poet. If a verse novelist indeed produces nothing more than "enjambed prose," that would seem to me to represent a significant aesthetic failure.
In From Tongue to Text, Debbie Pullinger discusses the differences between the lyric and the narrative that "have important implications for thinking about children's poetry" (25). "Where narrative's concern is with external events and its mode is retrospection," she writes, "lyric's is on internal events and its mode is introspection" (20). This is not to say that "lyric and narrative [are] mutually exclusive" (20)—Pullinger offers the example of lyrical prose—but as she notes, citing a number of critics including myself, "children's literature critics used to swimming strongly in the clear flow of narrative fiction often seem to find themselves stranded when they enter the muddy puddles of poetry" (5).
The works I will be discussing in this essay, Marilyn Nelson's How I Discovered Poetry (2014) and Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming are, strictly speaking, verse memoirs1 rather than verse novels. In his contribution to this special issue, Cadden discusses the common peritextual features that Woodson's...