Have you ever picked up a prose novel and — surprise! — at the start of every chapter there’s a poem to greet you?
When prose novelists incorporate poetry in any form, I’m happy.
In Possession, A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel, modern literati uncover a secret Victorian romance. The whole story hinges on verses written by a fictional 19th century poet.
Lewis Carroll and J. R. R. Tolkien include invented verse — often in the form of songs shared by their characters — in their fantasy novels. Other authors — such as Cornelia Funke in her Inkheart series — use poetic epigraphs from a variety of authors at the beginning of chapters.
More recent examples: Nikki Grimes’ recent Between the Lines is, in part, about teen slam poets writing their own verses. I used poetry in my prose novel Takedown to show another side of athletic Lev’s character.
What are some writing-craft reasons why an author might choose to incorporate poetry into a prose novel?
I asked this question of debut middle grade novelist Melinda Beatty. Her wonderful fantasy, Heartseeker, published in June. Here is the blurb from Goodreads:
A vibrant fantasy-adventure debut about a girl who can see lies.
You’re a Fallow of the Orchard. You’re as tough as a green apple in summer . . .
Only Fallow was just six harvests old when she realized that not everyone sees lies. For Only, seeing lies is as beautiful as looking through a kaleidoscope, but telling them is as painful as gnawing on cut glass. Only’s family warns her to keep her cunning hidden, but secrets are seldom content to stay secret.
When word of Only’s ability makes its way to the King, she’s plucked from her home at the orchard and brought to the castle at Bellskeep. There she learns that the kingdom is plagued by traitors, and that her task is to help the King distinguish between friend and foe. But being able to see lies doesn’t necessarily mean that others aren’t able to disguise their dishonesty with cunnings of their own.
In the duplicitous, power-hungry court, the truth is Only’s greatest weapon . . . and her greatest weakness.
Each chapter of Heartseeker begins with a poem, song, or piece of religious verse. Not from our world, but from Orstral — Melinda’s invented universe — with its rural farmers, Romani-like barge community, and palace intrigues.
Here is the poem that starts the readers’ journey, right at the top of Chapter 1:
Call out, call out, you loud jays, you honey-throated sparrows!
Sing out the summer as it pours into the valleys,
Into the Hush, the Rill, the Lannock and the Blue.
Cry warmth for the Sandkin plains,
For the Mollier vines.
Life up your voices for gentle Dorvan tides
and cool Folque stone.
You sons and daughters of Orstral,
Join the chorus of the coming long light!
–Jylla Burris, poet, Songs of Orstral
When I finished Heartseeker (I sped through the last 100 pages — couldn’t put it down!), I stopped to think about this technique. Fascinating! Through brief poems and verse snippets, Melinda was able to communicate information about the world of the story, a world that was new to me, but clearly one with a unique history, various cultures and belief systems, ruling families, and social mores.
Here’s what Melinda had to say:
When I lived in Britain, it occurred to me that every culture’s got their touchstones—the things everyone knows, whether it’s old television shows, books, politics or scandal. Once I got a broader understanding, especially of the entertainment, I understood a little more about what shaped the people I interacted with every day. Writing songs, stories and poetry from the different peoples of Orstral helped me get to know them—to know what they all had in common, whether that was a rhyme that everyone knew from the cradle, or a bawdy pub tune.
What do you think of this technique? How does it help you, as a reader, connect to the story? I’d love to hear about some novels you’ve read that incorporate poetry, either as a plot element or to help with the world-building in some way. Please share your favorites in the comments.
Melinda Beatty has had years of practice trying to explain to others why she was just having an imaginary conversation between two people that don’t exist, so becoming a writer seemed like the best way to stop everyone looking at her funny.
After years of narrowboat living on the English canals, she and her British husband are now back on dry land in Maryland where by day, she’s a mild-mannered Indie bookseller, and by night, she wrangles words, craft projects, a Labrador and two fierce mini-women. HEARTSEEKER is her debut novel.
You can connect with Melinda for news or banter at mmbeatty.com or on Twitter @poorrobin.
Appreciations for this intriguing intro to a new character who sounds fetching, Only Fallow, & her creator, Melinda Beatty come back from time across the Big Pond, with her British Isles mate.
Much applause for her debut summer & to you for helping
spread the word.
As close as I can get to what your good question asks…
my reading of late is in nonfiction history, abolition activism times, but also I’m escaping into a historical fiction series of golden oldies (1990s) by Miriam Grace Monfredo, set in & around Seneca Falls. The author loves to lead a chapter with a classic quotation or a few lines of classic poetry. Verses from Shakespeare are also incorporated into the text of one in the series, NORTH STAR CONSPIRACY, as the town folk produce Macbeth. I about tumbled from my chair when Monfredo’s character, a librarian named Glynis Tryon marveled at how
Shakespeare’s old prose on stage starkly limned 1841 slavery
in the US:
“I think our country sinks beneath the yoke,
it weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash
is added to her wounds.”
And then this current reader feels those lines
evoke a heavy weight about much of what we are troubled with…..
On a lighter note, I loved meeting vibrant & talented Lev in TAKEDOWN & hope to have a presentation on it later at Bookseedstudio. Congrats! on your 2nd page-turning novel, with arms eager to order the next, by & by.
Those are timely lines still today, though elements of the yoke have changed. Thank you, Jan.
The book sounds intriguing. Interesting format that I have been considering. Haven’t read any yet, so this may be one to start with.
If you like fantasy, you’ll enjoy this one, Donna.
Love the sound of this book, and while my fuzzy head can’t think of one to name, I know when I have seen it similarly used in other fantasy books, I have really enjoyed the extra layer it gives the story.
I feel the same way, Sally. Heartseeker made me think about how much of a culture is communicated through verse, popular song, etc.
What an interesting review. I love it. In past reviews you’ve asked about verse novels in the fantasy genre….and behold here is a novel that includes fantasy verse. The idea of introducing a foreign world through poetry–well, once you and the author explain seems like a DUH! moment. Of course! But, as a reader swept up in the story, I wouldn’t necessarily notice that at all. Any time I see verse, I’m happy…but I don’t think about why it’s there. What a fascinating craft method to loo for in other works and explore. Great thought provoking post. And, the book sounds absolutely delicious!
Thanks, Linda. Yes — it’s brilliant the way these little pieces of verse help build up a backstory for Beatty’s world.
This was a fascinating post. I think the idea of providing a cultural backstory through bits of verse is brilliant! I’m also thoroughly intrigued by the idea of a character who sees lies. This book is going in my cart today! Thanks!
I hope you enjoy it. This has the feel of a classic fantasy, but Only is a sassy, real-feeling young girl. I enjoyed my time with her.
Come to think of it, I have noticed poems embedded in prose novels. Now that you’ve brought it to my attention, I’ll be on the lookout! Cheers!
Timely post. Just this week I was trying to think of books that have poetry incorporated into them. I suppose two that come to mind are Kwame Alexander’s ‘Rebound’ and Tami Charles’ ‘Like Vanessa’. I’ve read the first book but waiting to get the second one from my library. From the Amazon preview it seems like it’ll be good.
Hi, Erin. I’ve read many of Kwame’s books, but I haven’t seen Like Vanessa yet. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think of it.
Very insightful post, Laura. I have read novels with bits of poetry sprinkled through, but now you’ve given me a new way to think about how the use of poems bring deeper meaning to the story.
Loved Possesion! Will look for this new book. Thanks for sharing
Me too! It’s one of my favorites. Did you see the movie?
First of all, thank you for introducing me to a book I now want to read! And I, too, love prose novels that incorporate poetry in some way. I loved the epigraphs in the Inkheart trilogy. Another favorite is ROSE UNDER FIRE (companion to CODE NAME VERITY) by Elizabeth Wein. In addition to flying planes in WWII, Rose also writes poetry.
Kay, I LOVED Code Name Verity, but haven’t read Rose Under Fire. Thanks for the book recommendation — we made a good trade!
Thanks for the rich review of “Heart Seeker” Laura. I really enjoy this style of mixing poetry or quotes within a book. A few years ago I read “The Song Poet, A Memoir of My Father,” by Kao Kalia Yang. Yang started most chapters with a poem or phrases from her father. Here’s how she started chapter 1,
“I didn’t have very many people around to say beautiful things to me.”
“I used to go from the house of one neighbor to the next collecting the beautiful things people had to say to each other.”
“By myself, I whispered the words to comfort my heart. One day, the words escaped on a sigh and a song was born.”
This is wonderful, Michelle. I’m going to look for that book — sounds beautiful.
Heartseeker sounds wonderful! I am in awe of writers who weave poetry into their fiction. Kate Messner did an incredible job writing Elidee’s poetry in Breakout. Thank you for this thoughtful post, Laura!
Oh, how did I forget that one! Breakout is a great book and Elidee’s character and voice was one of my favorites.
I’m always interested in the ways authors build a fantasy world for readers, but to put that information in poetry…wow! Creativity to the next level!
I agree, Mary Lee. Melinda uses it so well in this book.
What a great review, Laura. I love that Only Fallow is tough as a green apple in spring. So much of her phrasing is poetic. The use of poetry to allow more descriptive world-building is clever. I like when books have clues in the poetry at the top of the chapter, rewarding the readers who pay attention to the smallest details.
Love this post, Laura – thanks for the introduction. I enjoyed everyone’s responses, too! (David G. Lanoue’s HAIKU GUY series springs to my mind from my own shelves – :0) ) Oh – and “two fierce mini-women” is beyond adorable.