Journal

Why a Story in Verse?

by | Mar 15, 2016 | Editorial

“For the land beyond the Lower East Side
And New York’s endless stone and steel,
Where the other shore was three months’ ride—
California, where the gold was real.
The north was booming, but the southern part
Was the place that captured Lily’s heart.
A place they called Los Angeles where
It never rained, was never cold,
Where the scent of orange filled the air
And palm trees lined the streets of gold.
Not for Lily’s family, no.
But a grandchild, maybe, one day would go.”
(From Part 1- Lily)

People ask me all the time why I choose to write my stories in verse. It’s a very interesting question, especially since I don’t feel that I really do the choosing. My new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey, is a verse novella because it came to me in verse form. What do I mean by that? I certainly do not mean to imply that it just appeared before me fully formed as a poem. Far from it—I’m certainly not Mozart taking dictation! As with most poets and writers, whatever I am working on requires working, and re-working, over and over.

However, a big part of my creative process, and something I have always taught my creative writing students, is learning to be receptive. When I am receptive, open and wiling to listen, stories come to me. Characters talk to me, just as Lily began whispering to me on my morning walk many years ago. She began telling me her story, and I felt compelled to start taking notes.

But something else happens to me when a story starts coming. It tells me the form in which it needs to be told. Sometimes my stories come as prose, but more often that not they come as poems. Even the particular verse form comes; I do not choose it. My children’s book, Mindel and the Misfit Dragons, for instance, came in the four-line ballad stanza, while Lily of the Valley, a book for adults, is in sestets of iambic tetrameter. I may start to feel the lines flow through me, almost pump through, in which case I have to stop whatever I’m doing and grab a pen. Or else they may come in spurts at unexpected times of the day.  A whole story certainly does not come at once, nor even a whole chapter. But enough lines and stanzas will come—and feel right for this story, feel right for these characters and their narrative voice—that I know I have my template. I know I have the structure, or more accurately perhaps the vessel, for telling the rest of the story.

Then the real work begins. The active listening, the drawing out, the shaping and paring, the writing and revising. It can take weeks, months or years, but there is a special joy in writing poetry—the musicality of it, the unique satisfaction of having the sound and sense of a stanza click, that is absolutely exhilarating.

Though I did not consciously choose to write Lily of the Valley as a verse novella, I do believe the verse form enhances the story in several ways. One is that it plays into the allegorical nature of the story. That is, Lily can be read as a narrative but also as symbolic of the whole American immigrant story. Since poetry at its core deals with essence, this comes through more clearly than if this were, say, a 600 page family saga. I once read an interesting analogy that the difference between a novel and a poem is like the difference between an oil painting and a piece of sculpture. The oil painting is rich in detail and many-layered, but the sculpture captures essence. There cannot be an extraneous bit of clay. So, too, a novel is rich in detail and vast in scope, but a poem captures essence; there cannot be an extraneous line. Another way I believe the verse form enhances this story is that poetry by its nature is lyrical. And for me there is something lyrical and haunting about Lily, which tells me that it could not have been written any other way.

I’m well aware that modern readers are not so accustomed to reading stories as poems. But once upon a time, before the invention of the printing press, almost all stories were told as poems. They were sung in castle halls, told before the fire in great manor houses, in forests and on desert sands. The rhyme and rhythm of poetry made the narratives easier for the bards and troubadours to remember. Literature began as an oral medium, and the earliest written stories continued the poetic tradition.

For me there is a certain pleasure that poetry provides the eye and ear. One reviewer captured this when she said that the experience of reading Lily was more like watching a musical than just seeing a movie. I’ve always loved musicals, and I love the way the musicality of poetry can propel a story. But mostly, I just let a story tell itself. And so Lily of the Valley is a verse novella. I sincerely hope that everyone will experience in reading this book the same delight that I felt in writing it.

A place they called Los Angeles where
It never rained, was never cold,
Where the scent of orange filled the air
And palm trees lined the streets of gold.
Not for Lily’s family, no.
But a grandchild, maybe, one day would go.”
(From Part 1- Lily)

People ask me all the time why I choose to write my stories in verse. It’s a very interesting question, especially since I don’t feel that I really do the choosing. My new book, Lily of the Valley—An American Jewish Journey, is a verse novella because it came to me in verse form. What do I mean by that? I certainly do not mean to imply that it just appeared before me fully formed as a poem. Far from it—I’m certainly not Mozart taking dictation! As with most poets and writers, whatever I am working on requires working, and re-working, over and over.

However, a big part of my creative process, and something I have always taught my creative writing students, is learning to be receptive. When I am receptive, open and wiling to listen, stories come to me. Characters talk to me, just as Lily began whispering to me on my morning walk many years ago. She began telling me her story, and I felt compelled to start taking notes.

But something else happens to me when a story starts coming. It tells me the form in which it needs to be told. Sometimes my stories come as prose, but more often that not they come as poems. Even the particular verse form comes; I do not choose it. My children’s book, Mindel and the Misfit Dragons, for instance, came in the four-line ballad stanza, while Lily of the Valley, a book for adults, is in sestets of iambic tetrameter. I may start to feel the lines flow through me, almost pump through, in which case I have to stop whatever I’m doing and grab a pen. Or else they may come in spurts at unexpected times of the day.  A whole story certainly does not come at once, nor even a whole chapter. But enough lines and stanzas will come—and feel right for this story, feel right for these characters and their narrative voice—that I know I have my template. I know I have the structure, or more accurately perhaps the vessel, for telling the rest of the story.

Then the real work begins. The active listening, the drawing out, the shaping and paring, the writing and revising. It can take weeks, months or years, but there is a special joy in writing poetry—the musicality of it, the unique satisfaction of having the sound and sense of a stanza click, that is absolutely exhilarating.

Though I did not consciously choose to write Lily of the Valley as a verse novella, I do believe the verse form enhances the story in several ways. One is that it plays into the allegorical nature of the story. That is, Lily can be read as a narrative but also as symbolic of the whole American immigrant story. Since poetry at its core deals with essence, this comes through more clearly than if this were, say, a 600 page family saga. I once read an interesting analogy that the difference between a novel and a poem is like the difference between an oil painting and a piece of sculpture. The oil painting is rich in detail and many-layered, but the sculpture captures essence. There cannot be an extraneous bit of clay. So, too, a novel is rich in detail and vast in scope, but a poem captures essence; there cannot be an extraneous line. Another way I believe the verse form enhances this story is that poetry by its nature is lyrical. And for me there is something lyrical and haunting about Lily, which tells me that it could not have been written any other way.

I’m well aware that modern readers are not so accustomed to reading stories as poems. But once upon a time, before the invention of the printing press, almost all stories were told as poems. They were sung in castle halls, told before the fire in great manor houses, in forests and on desert sands. The rhyme and rhythm of poetry made the narratives easier for the bards and troubadours to remember. Literature began as an oral medium, and the earliest written stories continued the poetic tradition.

For me there is a certain pleasure that poetry provides the eye and ear. One reviewer captured this when she said that the experience of reading Lily was more like watching a musical than just seeing a movie. I’ve always loved musicals, and I love the way the musicality of poetry can propel a story. But mostly, I just let a story tell itself. And so Lily of the Valley is a verse novella. I sincerely hope that everyone will experience in reading this book the same delight that I felt in writing it.

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