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?
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.