Monday 5 June 2017

Exploring Genres - Free Verse and Verse Novels

by Jeanette O'Hagan

In the last Genre Post - Valerie Volk ably spoke for the value and place of poetry. (You can read her post here.)  Before we move on to another genre, let's explore a little more the possibilities of poetry.

Often when we think of poetry, we think of rhyming couplets, but there are, in fact, a wide number of poetic forms and traditions. There are traditional forms like couplets, sonnets and ballads; humorous forms such as limericks; or more challenging forms like villanelles and sistenas. There are also Japanese forms such as haikus and tankas, Arabic or Burmese forms etc and modern forms like found or shaped poetry.

Today, I'd like to explore two - the verse novel and free verse.

Verse Novel

As Valerie reminded us, the verse narrative (a story told in verse) is as old as story telling, itself.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer's Iliad and Beowulf are all ancient stories told through poetry.  While much of the Bible is in prose - Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and most of Job are told poetically. Hebrew poetry relies more on structures such as parallelism, chiasmus (x-type pattern), assonance (similar sounds) and word puns, than rhyme and rhythm. Chaucer and Shakespeare used poetic verse. At a popular level, local stories were expressed in ballads - such as 'The Man from Snowy River'.

Since the eighteenth century and the rise of the novel, prose has replaced poetry as the preferred way to tell stories.

However, in recent decades, the verse novel has emerged as a popular genre, particularly in young adult literature. In a verse novel the narrative is told either entirely, or in part, by poetry. It also includes characters, point of view, dialogue, narration, description, and other features appropriate to writing a novel. The poetry may be traditional form with strict rhyming and meter, but it is often told in free verse.

Calvin Miller's powerful trilogy - The Singer, The Song, The Finale - is an allegorical and poetic retelling of Jesus' life, death and resurrection that helps one see this pivotal story with new eyes.

More recently, Michelle Dennis Evans has published Sink, Drift or Swim - a young adult, free verse novel about Rina's fishing trip with her dad. It an engaging and dramatic tale told from Rina's point-of-view in her distinctive voice.

Why not just tell the story in prose? By choosing free verse, Michelle Evans brings both a vividness and a focus to Rina's experiences and thoughts. It enables Michelle to tackle a serious subject with a light hand. I think it adds to the impact of the book.

So, what is free verse?

Free Verse

Usually, when English speakers think of poetry, we think of rhyme and meter (or beat), e.g. 'I'm a poet, and I didn't know it.' As I mentioned above, other cultures use different devices. The Hebrews especially liked parallelism, Japanese poetry often focuses of syllables. However, with English poetic forms we also have blank verse (meter without rhyme) and free verse (which may include rhyme, but isn't tied to a particular meter).

Free verse uses other elements such as assonance, metaphor, image, alliteration, the senses, themes, pacing, white space and other visual elements such as changes in font or how the letters are aligned to convey meaning and emotion.

While there is both a discipline and indeed a refining process in using a particular poetic form like a ballad or a villanelle - there is a freedom in free verse which I particularly enjoy.

Often poetry is a way of expressing the inexpressible, of allowing deep emotions eloquence and crystallisation. Free verse gives freedom to vary the rhythm and pace. Also, I find an element of play and fun with free verse.

Here is an example from my own work - but I'd also urge you to check out poets such as Michelle Dennis Evans or Cameron Semmens 10 Poems that can really help you through a tough spot and his other books or perhaps some of the poems in Glimpses of Light, especially Sue Jeffrey's 'Sight' or Mazzy Adams 'Journey' for great examples of free verse.


The teacher’s voice drones on
Futt, futt, white dusty blades whirl
the fan rotating overhead
listlessly pushing the hot humid air
around the temporary aluminium heat box.

At last the sonorous school bell rings
Books slap shut, chairs squeal, pushed backwards
“Class dismissed” “Homework due on Monday”
and we jostle and stream out into the turbid air.

Moisture beads on my upper lip,
my forehead and armpits drip.
Overhead white cotton candy clouds tower.
I adjust the strap cutting into my shoulder
and daydream my way home.

Clouds roil and collide
stacking ever higher
their underbellies bruised in aubergine tones.
The sudden hush of bird song,
a fitful wind stirs
harrying leaves along gutters
eyes seared by silver flashes
sonic booms reverberating
watery missiles pelting down
stinging arms and face
water sluicing through flattened hair
burrowing past turned up collar
flowing in plump streams
pooling and gurgling
overflowing in the gutters.

My shoes squelch
with each liberated step
until laughing and gasping
I hug my slick school bag
and run as I laugh
attempting to chart a path
between the silver rain drops
flying towards home.

Jeanette O'Hagan ( First published, Judge's choice, Poetica Christi Inner Child, 2014)

So - if you have an inkling to write poetry - but have always got bogged down in meter and rhyme - why not give free verse a go?

***This is a cross post with Australasian Christian Writers.***

Images and poems © Jeanette O'Hagan

Jeanette O’Hagan first started spinning tales in the world of Nardva at the age of eight or nine. She enjoys writing secondary world fiction, poetry, blogging and editing.

Recent publications include Heart of the Mountain: a short novellaThe Herbalist's Daughter: a short story and Lakwi's Lament: a short story. Her other short stories and poems are published in a number of anthologies including Glimpses of Light, Another Time Another Place and Like a Girl. Jeanette is also writing her Akrad’s Legacy Series—a Young Adult secondary world fantasy fiction with adventure, courtly intrigue and romantic elements.

Jeanette has practised medicine, studied communication, history, theology and a Master of Arts (Writing). She loves reading, painting, travel, catching up for coffee with friends, pondering the meaning of life and communicating God’s great love. She lives in Brisbane with her husband and children.

Find her at her Facebook Page or at Goodreads or on Amazon or on her websites or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes . if you want to stay up-to-date with latest publications and developments, sign up to Jeanette O'Hagan Writes e-mail newsletter.  


  1. That was very interesting Jenny. So much I have to learn about writing poetry. I used to write reams of poetry as a child (rhyming verse mainly) but for some reason haven't expanded on it as an adult. Perhaps one day! :) Loved the verse you had shared. Loved your use of language. Very nicely done.

    1. Thanks Anusha. I wrote poetry only rarely until I screwed up my courage and did Month of Poetry in 2014. Now I feel a freedom to write and explore. There a freedom writing poetry. I do hope you take it up again one day.

  2. Thanks for giving poetry another shout-out Jenny. I really enjoyed Michelle's free-verse novel. Most of the poems read like prose, but she captured so much in a short space. It was a quick read, but had a lot of depth and made you think about issues. It would be ideal for a young person who perhaps didn't like reading long books, but still liked stories.

    I've also read Valerie Volk's verse novel 'Passion Play', which was like a modern day version of the Canterbury Tales. Very clever and well-written. I've been writing poetry since school days, but had never thought of writing a verse novel. I might have to add it to my list of projects. I really like your poem too. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks Nola. I must put Valerie's Passion Play on my to-read list. And I'd love to read your verse novel when you get to it :)

  3. Thanks for the interesting post, Jenny. I find free verse intriguing, and also quite a difficult genre. Poetry itself is a challenging genre, and it wouldn't surprise me if free verse is even more challenging to pull off well than rhyming meter in its own ways. A big congratulations to all the talented CWD members who have successfully given it a go.

    1. Thanks Paula - and yes, we have some great poets in our group :) Interesting that you see free verse as harder than traditional forms. I find it the other way around. I guess the challenge is for it to sound like poetry not prose. The other challenge sometimes is to avoid being too poetic in my prose in fiction writing. Perhaps its a bit like Jazz :)

  4. A very vivid verse Jeanette. It conjured up days from l-o-n-g ago.

    1. Thanks Rita 😀 A common Aussie school experience, especially in Queensland 😀🌫🌧⚡️