The first time I did it, it was a challenge. I’d never thought of doing it before. In fact, when my MFA students at Vermont College of Fine Arts wanted to do it, I confess that I discouraged them.
I’m talking about novels in verse, often called poetry novels. Poetry novels, I used to tell my students, are usually neither. They aren’t poetry and they don’t work as novels.
But then I did it. I wrote one. And I had to eat all my old reservations. My verse novel was called Little Dog, Lost.
I wrote Little Dog, Lost in verse—I eschew the word poetry, because what I was doing was certainly not that—for a very special reason. I wanted to write a story that would be accessible to developing readers, and I didn’t want to work in the short sentences usually required. I had written in those short sentences many times with a series of books for Random House Stepping Stones: The Blue Ghost; The Red Ghost; The Green Ghost; The Golden Ghost; The Secret of the Painted House; The Very Little Princess and its prequel, The Very Little Princess, Rose’s Story.
It is entirely possible to write in short, accessible sentences and still to maintain rhythm and flow. I did it in those Stepping Stones books. But after a while, I itched to write with my own more natural flow. And the best way I could think of to do that and still give young readers bite-sized pieces was to write in verse. The white space on the page would make every line feel more accessible, no matter the length of the sentence it was part of.
So I tried it.
And surprised myself. I started out tentatively, uncertainly—was I truly writing verse or was I just breaking my prose into ragged lines?—but I soon fell in love with this new way of bringing a story to the page. Writing in verse naturally condensed my language, made it tighter and more powerful, too. And the lines looked so pretty on the page. I discovered that I liked white space, too.
I also found it more difficult to pull in backstory, so my story became more about the present moment. Which changed its nature. (This lack of comprehensive back story used to be one of my objections to verse novels.) But I began to see the change as good. Different from, rather than worse than.
I loved writing Little Dog, Lost. So much so, that I decided to do it again. Not a sequel with the same characters but another animal book in the same style. And Little Cat’s Luck was born.
This time I fell into the verse the way I had once fallen into prose writing, as the most natural way in the world to write. It felt like the way my story needed to find its way to the page. Rather quickly, though, I found myself wanting not only to do what I had done before, to write a story in verse, but to play with that verse. To see what else the form could accomplish. And so I played until I stumbled into concrete poetry.
When a golden leaf fell in my cat’s world, the words
And I was off and running, learning something new.
Little Cat’s Luck is out now, another verse novel by Marion Dane Bauer, who now appreciates verse novels, and another example of an old writer learning new tricks.
This time, at least, I don’t have the embarrassment of having denigrated concrete verse before I discovered it for myself. And it’s reminded me to keep my door open to ideas that are new to me. It’s the best way I know to keep a long career alive.
I wonder what I can discover next.