- Rhetorical Technique in the Young Adult Verse Novel
The verse novel for young adult readers is the most striking development in literature for young people in the young twenty-first century. Hundreds of titles have been published since the late 1990s. What makes it important is that it is a form which has found a niche in the Young Adult (YA) market, and so while the YA novel has understandably become set in its own conventions over the last few decades, the verse novel is, in contrast, still an experiment. The form makes visible the process of rhetorical balance between estrangement and invitation, which is an important consideration in literature for the young. Rather than judging a verse novel on individual poems or even as a collection of poems, we should judge the volume's success in its balance in providing aesthetic challenge and communicating story.1
Is it Poetry?
Patty Campbell asks this question of the verse novel: "But is it poetry?" (61). Answering her own question, she alludes to a "Dictionary definition of 'poetry'" which includes "condensed language, natural cadences, and metaphors" (613)—qualities any good prose writer hopes to achieve as well, surely. Campbell compliments Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust as "vivid," which is an aspiration of all good novelists regardless of whether we consider the diary entries to be poems. Some verse novels are more poetic than others, as some novels in general are. But I think for us to concentrate only on individual entries and their poetic qualities may mean missing the forest for the trees. I'd like to suggest that while we can appreciate verse novels that are comprised all or in part of some fine poems, we can also acknowledge the poetic quality of others ("condensed language, natural cadences, and metaphors"), and then also concede that [End Page 129] other verse novels are simply less poetry than they are good novels that guide the reader by manipulating language into rhetorically effective forms. Poets may be attracted to the form for different reasons than fiction and nonfiction writers, but regardless of from which direction the writer comes, she sees in the form opportunities to combine poetic convention with story, and the form rewards the writer who wants to create a distinctive voice above all things (Alexander 282).
Karen Coats argues that children's poetry criticism generally has suffered from its being read with the same critical lenses used to read poetry for adults, and so we have the compounded problem of judging verse novels on the quality of individual poems using standards possibly ill-fitted to judge poetry for young people at all. Children's poetry criticism creates "camps that operate out of implicit theoretical positions culled from approaches to adult poetry," and as a result, "children's poetry has no coherent theory of its own" (129). We also don't usually judge the verse novel for failing to be enough like novels or like drama, two other genres clearly at work in the verse novel, though it has as much in common with those genres as it does poetry. The graphic novel presents us with a similar circumstance: it might be accused of not being novel enough, or comic enough—too much of either or not enough of both. I would rather not go down the rabbit hole that critics often do regarding whether something is or isn't children's or YA literature. The binaries of poetry-or-not as well as for-children-or-not are typically more useful for fireworks than shedding actual light. Rather than answering the question, "is it poetry?" I'd like to consider how the verse novel strikes a balance between techniques that provide access and techniques that encourage alienation, and certainly poetic form is part of this balance.
Although the contemporary verse novel has its roots in the epic and the verse novels of earlier centuries, as Donelle Ruwe explains in her work, the twenty-first century version of the verse novel has been embraced enthusiastically by writers of young adult literature. Vikki Van Sickle observes that "familiar methods of categorization and analysis are failing the verse novel." We...