Monday, September 3, 2012

Some Final Thoughts on Verse

I mean, of course, the final thoughts I'm going to write about verse for a while. There's certainly a lot more that can be said about writing in verse -- probably more that should be said -- but this is all I have to say for the time being.

And these thoughts apply equally well to writing easy readers in prose. It's just that some problems pop up more frequently in verse than in prose.

For example, it's more tempting to write filler words in verse than in prose. The driving rhythm of the verse can distract you from writing simple sentences, mainly because you get too caught up in "How can I make this sentence fit this rhythm?" You start writing bad sentences to keep the rhythm.

Instead, you need to rethink your sentences so that they sound more like normal speech while keeping the proper rhythm. Sometimes that takes a lot of time and effort, but you need to put it in if you want to write good verse. You shouldn't write "I think I would like to go" just because it fits the verse rhythm if you simply mean "I'm going."

Likewise, your characters should not like Yoda talk if Yoda they are not. Just because such phrasing was acceptable 200 years ago doesn't make it acceptable now. In an easy reader, you need to make the sentences sound as normal as you can. Don't write awkward sentences just to fit rhythms or make an easier rhyme.

And make sure your verse can be illustrated. Yeah, I know that isn't always possible. But often you just need to put a bit more thought into your verse (or prose) to make it more visual. Young children are limited in their ability to think abstractly. (I'm not saying that they can't, just that they can't do it as well -- or for as long -- as adults.) You need to make your sentences as direct and easy to understand as you can if you want children to enjoy your stories.

Finally, realize that good verse is harder to write than good prose. This should be common sense, but verse often sounds simpler because of the way good verse rolls off your tongue. If you want to write good verse, it's going to take you longer to finish a story than it would if you simply wrote it in good prose. That's because you have to juggle more balls to make simple verse that sounds better than simple prose. If you aren't willing to put in the time necessary to create good verse, then stick with prose. There's no shame in admitting that you don't want to put extra time in on your work just to get a rhyme. It's all about the story, not the form that the story takes. Write in the form that you most enjoy writing.

After all, if you don't enjoy writing it, the kids won't enjoy reading it. So whether you decide to write in verse or prose, have fun doing it!


  1. Good series of articles about children's verse. A couple of points:

    1. You mention how Seuss divides up his tetrameters to make them more readable. From my recollection, he does this occasionally but not with great regularity. Much of his verse, even difficult stanzas, is presented without extra line breaks of any kind. When those breaks do occur, they seem to me to be as motivated by the needs of page layout as much as anything.

    2. You point out how Seuss varies the meter to keep things interesting. But you didn't mention how often he plays games with words that would typcially receive stresses. Here's an example from the opening of "The Grinch", with asterisks marking two-syllable words that don't receive a stress:
    Every* WHO Down in WHO-ville Liked CHRISTmas a LOT...
    But the GRINCH, Who lived JUST North of WHO-ville, Did NOT!
    The GRINCH hated* CHRISTmas! The WHOLE Christmas* SEASon!
    Now, PLEASE don't ask WHY. No one QUITE knows the REASon.

    Is it "cheating"? As long as it sounds good, probably not.

  2. Good observations, Roxy. Let me add a couple of thoughts:

    1) You're right. Seuss did his own page layouts, as he was the man in charge of Random House's easy readers, and those layouts sometimes affected his line breaks. In fact, I'm working my way through a book called The Annotated Cat by Philip Nel that takes The Cat in the Hat and The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and goes through them spread by spread, comparing them with many of Seuss's original layout sketches.

    However, while he doesn't make line breaks with regularity, the line breaks do coincide with the phrasing to make the lines more readable. Even the breaks that appear to have been done for layout reasons coincide with the phrasing. Seuss really doesn't get enough credit for just how much care he took with all aspects of his books. He was really amazing!

    2) Don't let the number of syllables in an individual word cause you to lose sight of the line's meter. For example, why isn't "every" in the first line pronounced E-ver-y instead of EV-ry? It's because we can pronounce the word either way, but the second way fits the meter better. The first two lines are anapestic tetrameter (4 feet of da-da-DUM, and the second two lines are amphibrachic tetrameter (4 feet of da-DUM-da). The two-syllable unaccented words just happen to fall on the unaccented "das" in the line.

    The trick here -- and it trips me up sometimes too, when I read "serious poetry" -- is that stress is a relative thing. Take that word "anapestic" as an example. If you're like me, you put the main accent on PES, like I do in this line:

    In FACT, an-a-PES-tic tet-RA-me-ter IS
    a COM-mom seuss PRAC-tice in VERSE for the KIDS.

    That's an amphibrachic couplet with the final unaccented syllables left off. But suppose I tried to put it in iambic tetrameter (4 feet of da-DUM)? I'd get something like this:

    In FACT, an AN-a-PES-tic LINE
    can SOUND o-KAY when DONE with RHYME.

    There are two accents in the word "anapestic" when I write the second version. That's because, even when spoken normally, the first syllable is also stressed -- it's just not as strong as the third syllable. You might say there are three levels of stress -- a main stress, a secondary stress, and two unstressed syllables.

    In "Every WHO" in the first line of Grinch, WHO is the primary stress of the three syllables, so we don't accent the EV in every... just like we say anaPEStic instead of ANaPEStic. But note that, if we were working in an iambic line, we could have used a line like:

    so EVery WHO in WHOville LIKED

    And both of them would be perfectly correct. It all depends on which meter you're writing in. That's the key.

    It's not exactly cheating, but it's definitely a case of "as long as it sounds good, it IS good."


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