Verse novels – a gateway drug?
June 9, 2020
When teacher Louisa Reid turned to verse to tell the story of a bullied teenage girl saved through her love of boxing, she was fuelled by memories of her own childhood addiction.
She writes here about the background to her new YA novel, Gloves Off (Guppy Books, £9.99).
I’ve always been a fan of poetry. A proper fan. Reciting lines of poetry learned when I was at school is one skill I can actually boast that I possess. But I didn’t just learn poems off by heart because my teachers said I should. When I was a teenager I had a blue notebook and I transcribed into it all my favourite lines from the poetry and novels I read, reading and rereading those treasured phrases, whether I “understood” them or not – and they were always poetic: Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy, Poe’s Dream within a Dream; Pip’s heart-wringing words as he confesses to the love of a poor common boy whose poor heart Estella wounded, even then. I wrote down the words that spoke to me, the words I could get my hands on – luckily I lived in a home with shelves full of books, which by some accident of fate I shared a bedroom with. I read my way obsessively through pages, lurching from Harold Robbins to L P Hartley via the Faber Book of American Poetry. And when I started working on Saturdays at the local bookshop I spent my wages on luscious hardback anthologies full of illustrated love poetry, swooning on my way home and walking into lampposts.
Back then I was definitely in love with the idea of being in love, and poetry certainly fed my “romantic notions”. One of my favourite television scenes as a youngster was Anne in the TV version of Anne of Green Gables, played brilliantly by Megan Follows, setting sail in a leaky boat whilst reciting lines of Tennyson and having to be rescued by the gallant Gilbert Blythe – much to her chagrin. Pure bliss.
Perhaps writing novels in verse was the only appropriate outcome for that bookish young person who loved stories, and words and wordplay – the music and magic of it all. Now having written two novels in verse and working on a third, I find this form totally addictive. I love its hybridity; that I can feel and hear the text through rhythm and sound, as well as enjoy the narrative and voice, and because I’m a greedy reader, I love that I can gulp a story down in a two-hour stint and feel absolutely satisfied afterwards. I’m sad I didn’t have these books as a young reader myself and I’d like to think that the popularity of verse novels might act as a gateway drug into the beauty of a poetry addiction for other young people, as well as inspiring a love of reading in general. I love the inventiveness of this form, asking readers to come to a story with all their senses, to make meaning out of the white space and the formal properties of each “chapter” as well as from the imagery and narrative itself. And I love the rush and chase through a cascading waterfall of words, or the confrontation with terse short lines. All of this is perfect for the story-hungry, experience-chasing reader who wants to be fully immersed.
The beauty of poetry is what it gives to us and what it allows us to discover. It gives voice to things that sometimes we find it hard to say, and enables us to lift our own voices up too. The power of poetry is that it speaks to us from a place of truth about the most important aspects of being human: love, grief, death, heartbreak, loneliness, despair, delight, desire – in poetry all the raw and awful (in all senses of the word) and beautiful things about being a human are to be found, condensed of course into the best words, in the best order.