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  • Form as Metaphor in Middle Grade and Young Adult Verse Novels
  • Karen Coats (bio)

One of the most persistent complaints made by literary critics, book reviewers, and poets themselves regarding verse novels for young readers is that the poetry in such texts is just not up to snuff; that is, the individual poems don't always or even often display the formal aesthetic qualities and attributes valued by people who know about such things. Patty Campbell's question about verse narratives, "But is it poetry?" (611), reverberates throughout the criticism, prompting critics like Liz Rosenberg to argue that the poetry in many verse novels is "simply prose hacked into lines . . . [that] would not pass muster as poetry in an undergraduate creative writing class" (377). Ron Koertge concurs with this interestingly violent metaphor, stating that "Poets are careful about lineation . . . Sometimes, however, lineation is reduced to prose hacked into pieces like kindling" (143). In his essay in this special issue, Mike Cadden cites the dictionary definition of poetry that Campbell draws from in attempting to answer her question—"condensed language, natural cadences, and metaphors" (613, qtd. in Cadden 129)—before arguing that these defining qualities could just as well apply to good prose. Indeed, widely referenced definitions for poetry from poets themselves suffer from the same blur. Coleridge's "the best words in their best order," for instance, is surely a prerequisite for technical writing as well as any sort of clear, readable prose. Alternately, Emily Dickinson's insistence that "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry" (Higginson) seems, on the one hand, just as applicable to some contemporary political speech and/or horror texts (perhaps redundant?) as it does to poetry, while consigning some perfectly respectable poetry to the dustbin of literary failures on the other. [End Page 145]

The critiques of the poetry in verse novels are thus formulated through various ideas of what constitutes poetry in the first place. Some critics, for instance, zero in on particular qualities they expect to find in poetry. Nikki Grimes, for instance, laments that "there are too many so-called verse novels you get fifty pages into without finding a single metaphor" (qtd. in Vardel and Oxley 283, emphasis added). Richard Flynn stresses the lyric mode of poetry—that is, poetry that expresses the thoughts and feelings of its speaker in ways that can broadly be considered musical—as crucial to the success of a verse novel (see his essay in this issue). Poet and theorist Rachel Blau DuPlessis, by contrast, challenges the aesthetic supremacy of the lyric in her desire for "a definition agnostic to the intense claims of 'song' / 'melos' or 'personal expression' in poetry so as not to enshrine 'lyric' as the only mode, since some poems are impersonal, while others can deliberately muster a provocative, anti-melic sound" (287). Instead of defining the aesthetic quality of a poem through its success or failure as a lyric, she argues that segmentivity is "the underlying characteristic of poetry as a genre" (288), asserting that segmentivity "exposes and explores the fraught nature of subjectivity in a state of political and existential arousal that cannot (yet) be satisfied" (187–88). Indeed, her insight here seems to me a pretty good depiction of the experience of adolescence, and thus contributes to our understanding of what makes for aesthetic quality in verse novels for preteen and teen readers.

While Flynn offers rich, evocative descriptions of the poems in the verse novels he considers, and even makes a good case, following Marah Gubar, for rejecting generality in favor of considering individual works of art, I still find myself longing for explanations to supplement such descriptions, as well as strategies for analysis that attend to how young readers might be responding to the form itself. Therefore, my aim in this essay is to consider what a culturally inflected affective-cognitive theory might teach us about the aesthetics of the poetry in a verse novel specifically aimed at young readers. The individual...


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