Grant T. Smith, Ph. D.
“Sound and Script: The Intersection of Music and Poetry”
April 18-19, 2005
Verse Novels: True Believer as a Semiotic Discourse for Adolescent Girls
seven-year-old son KC and I argue over two things only: (1) what time after he will actually get into bed, and (2)
what radio station we will listen to when we ride together in our Nissan Quest
van. I like to listen to FM 90.3,
Wisconsin Public Radio; KC already has developed an ear for FM 93.3, Z-93. After a few fairly loud arguments (and don’t
ask me why a 55-year-old father is arguing with a 7-year-old son about when he
should go to bed or what music or talk we will listen to) we have finally arrived
at a compromise—we take turns listening to our favorite radio stations. On even days we listen to WPR and hear the
latest debates on social security, intelligent design, and the demographics of
the Native American population in
Now to be honest with you I have never paid any attention at all to Eminem or the currently-popular post-Nirvana Green Day’s “American Idiot,” 50 Cent, or Nine Inch Nails. I thank God that I grew up with the less radical and less morally corruptive music of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. But I think that I do understand KC’s motive for listening to rap music, street punk music, goth music, and the other alternative music forms—KC has already figured out that discourse is a form of power. In other words, whoever controls the radio dial, that is whoever controls the discourse, assumes a position of power. If we can categorize Eminem as political music, in the same tradition of Yankee Doodle Dandy, slave spirituals, jazz, “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine,” then we can infer that music is essentially a mode of activist communication. As the reigning member of my home’s patriarchal structure, this gives me some concern about giving KC access to Z-93. Because by listening to rap, KC is exposed to a radical consciousness-raising discourse, even a subversive discourse. This rap discourse will ultimately provide KC with the raw materials and inspiration needed to effect change and to overcome the tyranny imposed by his father. Yes, it is clear to me that KC is even now preparing to be an activist, a radical, a critic of his father’s comfortable world of ESPN, semi-monthly paychecks, and tasty frozen rice bowls on sale at Sam’s Club.
This, of course, is not new. Artists have been accused of being instigators either of constructive reform of society if you are from a blue state, or destructive pollution of society if you are from a red state, since Plato accused artists of appealing to the soul’s lowest, most egoistic, and deluded level, that is the irrational and the illusional. Art enlivens those base emotions which ought to be left to wither. Plato saw artists as meddlers, independent and irresponsible critics who produced work that was mimetic. Plato, who of course never imagined the music of Red Hot Chili Peppers, concluded that artists are interested in what is base and complex, not in what is simple and good—and these images of wickedness and excess inevitably led even good people to indulge secretly through art those feelings which they would be ashamed of to entertain in real life. This perhaps helps to explain the popularity of pornography on the internet—a very private place where men and women (who would never risk entering a pornography store downtown) can revel in their passions in the security of their homes.
At this point most of you are thinking, “Now this guy is very clever, but clearly he is attending the wrong symposium. The title of this conference is “Song and Scripts: The Viterbo University Conference on Music and Poetry.” I’ve heard about songs, but where is the poetry? This brings me to a recent phenomenon in my literary area of interest, young adult literature, a phenomenon called the verse novel. Actually the verse novel has been around for some time, but in 1997, Karen Hesse published Out of the Dust, and this book revolutionized how scholars of young adult literature defined the young adult novel. Now the difficulty in defining the verse novel is apparent in the early reviews of Out of the Dust, which, by the way, won the Newbery Medal, the Scott O’Dell Award, the ALA Best Book for Young Adults, the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and Publisher Weekly’s Best Book of the Year. But this literary groundbreaker is defined by different critics as “spare prose,” “spare verse,” ”free-verse poems,” “readable blank verse,” and finally a “poem/novel.” Clearly the critics did not know how to categorize this remarkable tale of a girl who has been scarred physically and psychologically by her mother’s death, her father’s silence, and the dust bowl of the 1930s. Is it a novel? Is it a book of poems? Can it be both?
Today we recognize that the verse novel is really a hybrid discourse which draws upon a variety of discourses: narrative poetry, dramatic poetry, lyrical poetry, soliloquy, dramatic monologues, interior monologues, oral story telling, and ballads. Young adult authors (many of them popular and acclaimed writers) have used the verse novel in historical fiction, contemporary fiction, mysteries, romances; indeed, practically every sub-genre of young adult literature that can be imagined. The verse novel may have a single narrator with a distinct voice (Billie Jo in Out of the Dust, Lonnie in Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion, Kristina in Ellen Hopkins’ Crank, Jack in Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog: A Novel, and LaVaughn in True Believer), or the verse novel may have multiple narrators, each with a unique voice in the story as the author develops subplots and characters. Helen Frost is most effective in her use of multiple narrators (and multiple verse forms) in Keesha’s House and Spinning through the Universe.
But it is not so important to ask today,
“What is the verse novel?” but rather, why has it appeared in Young Adult
literature and what effect does this discourse have on the reader? Now, my cynical answer to the first question
is, “It’s a gimmick to sell books.” And
it seems to have worked. Out of the Dust continues to be a best
seller eight years after its initial publication. Teachers can also purchase A Guide for Using Out of the Dust in the Classroom by Sarah Kartchner Clark for
$7.19 or Out of the Dust (
My “feminist” answer to the first question is, “Surely it is a perfect example of what some French feminists call l ecriture feminine, women’s writing. For example, feminist scholar Luce Irigaray seeks to explode the dualisms that our language, culture and ways of thinking are built on. She wants to disrupt singularity, linearity, and visuality as human universal standards and make room for multiplicity, circularity, and tactility—characteristics that she feels better present and represent woman. In This Sex Which Is Not One, Irigaray argues that women can redefine language to make room for the feminine by disrupting the gaps in dichotomies. She argues for a fluidity of meaning—linearity must go by the by. In her own discourse, Irigaray manifests this liberation from patriarchy by moving outside of dominant trends, institutions, parties, or schools of thought.
Helene Cixous explores the connection between women’s bodies,
whose sexual pleasure has been repressed, and women’s writing. “Writing in the feminine is passing on what
is cut out by the symbolic, the voice of the mother,
passing on what is most archaic. Cixous sees as models those women who have operated on the
edge of culture—their voices are the most authentic because they speak out of a
sense of difference. Karen Hesse’s description of her own writing process seems to
exemplify the “hysteric,” the divine unorganizable
feminine spirit that Cixous includes in the feminine
For Cixous, feminine texts struggle to undermine the dominant phallogocentric logic, split open the closure of the binary opposition and revel in the pleasures of open-ended textuality.
Julia Kristeva boldy pronounces that for better or for worse, the 21st century will be a female one, and she claims that female genius, (as illustrated in the female verse novelists that I shall discuss this afternoon) give hope that it might be for the better. Kristeva labels the feminine discourse as semiotic. By semiotic she means that feminine language (but not necessarily female language) is rhythmic and unifying. But unlike Irigaray and Cixous, Kristeva has not argued for the privileging of either the semiotic over the symbolic, nor for the dominance of the symbolic over the semiotic. Instead, her work urges a striving for a certain equilibrium in the social and psychic experience of individuals—between symbolic language as meaning, and poetic semiotic language as non-meaning, that is, for what can both erase and multiply meaning (Lechte 209). This sounds to me very post-modern and I shall return to this thought later.
American feminist Judith Fetterley underscores the importance of the need for “women’s writing.” She and other American feminist scholars (including Annette Kolodny, Elaine Showalter, Nina Baym, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar) argue that historically American literature (or at least canonical American literature) has been male. Thus to read “classic” American literature is perforce to identify as male. This obviously poses a problem for the female reader. The female reader must either identify with the male and thus erase her own sex, or she must dissociate herself from the very experience the literature engenders. In either case the woman is excluded from a literature that claims to define the American experience (). Fetterley and Baym suggest that this identification of the male experience as the American experience is complicated even more for the female reader because the female in the literature is so often represented as the “other” – that which challenges the male/human experience. This dilemma is illustrated in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella, The Yellow Wall-Paper. The female narrator is seeking to find a personal voice or identity—but if she assumes the voice of her husband, then she becomes silent and erases her self. On the other hand, if she resists her husband’s voice (the symbolic) and speaks in a personal voice (the semiotic), then she is declared mad by the patriarchal powers. Either way she loses.
Now I have no way of knowing if indeed these young adult authors are intentionally assuming a semiotic discourse in their verse novels. Indeed, Cixous says that it is impossible even to define a feminine practice of writing because the practice cannot be theorized, enclosed or coded. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t exist. Feminine discourse will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocenric system; it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination. It will be conceived of only by subjects who are breakers of automatisms, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate (341). But let’s return to our initial adjectives used to describe the verse novel: hybrid, lyrical, interior, mystery, romance, multiple, and poetic. Compare those adjectives with what the French feminists use to describe l ecriture feminine: multiplicity, gaps, fluidity, unorganized, open-ended and rhythmic. Kristeva specifically cites poetry as a type of semiotic discourse.
Some anecdotal evidence suggests that the verse novel is an example of l ecriture feminine. For example, when I look at the authors of verse novels in the last five years, I find very few male writers. The exception is Mel Glenn whose latest verse novel is (wouldn’t you know it) Jump Ball: A Basketball Season in Poems. For whatever reason, women seem to experimented more with writing novels in verse form than have men. Secondly, the males in my young adult literature classes are often put off by the verse novel format. As one male student said, “It isn’t written like a novel. It isn’t linear.” (Truly, that was the word he used). Friends who are reading specialists and librarians at public middle schools claim that very few boys check out verse novels. Indeed, one librarian said, “Actually, I can’t recall any boy checking out one of those books.” Finally, and for me, the strongest and most compelling parallel between verse novels and women’s writing is the subversive nature of both discourses. Again, I shall rely upon one anecdote to defend my claim that men tend to see this format as a challenge to the symbolic discourse, a discourse they have controlled since Adam named all of the animals in the Garden of Eden.
I recently invited a nationally-recognized young adult author and scholar to speak to a book group that I had organized. He was witty, engaging, intelligent, sensitive…just a terrific facilitator to the discussion. But afterwards, at dinner, while we were talking about young adult literature in general and verse novels in particular, he stated, “You know I am just a little bit tired of all of these women who are trying their hand at writing novels in verse.” I thought I was in a time warp, and that I was actually in the 19th century listening to Nathaniel Hawthorne century ranting against that damned mob of scribbling women who were stealing him of a readership and thus a livelihood in writing. It appears that this man’s fears of the dismantling of a literary tradition and dominant philosophical paradigms has a history that dates back at least to The Scarlet Letter.
When I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Conference the year after Out of the Dust was published. I attended a session where a panelist lauded the Newbery Award Committee for finally giving the award to a female writer who wrote about a strong female character and in a feminine voice. I don’t know how long this woman had been studying young adult literature, but a quick review of the list of Newbery winners of the 1980s and 1990s reveals that 15 winners were female and five winners were male. However, perhaps it is the perception rather than the reality that is important here. The perception is that Karen Hesse in format and in voice dismantled the dominant assumptions of what constituted a prize-winning novel. She was in essence redefining the novel as a discourse. It no longer had to be a relatively long fictional prose narrative. A novel could now have very short lines. A novel could have lots of white space, gaps, silence that allowed the reader a site for thought. A novel could have stanzas instead of paragraphs. A novel could have “sentences” without subjects or sentences without predicates. A novel could be non-linear. If nothing else, Out of the Dust demonstrated that our notions of history, culture, beauty, knowledge, and literature are accessible through ideological representation and interpretation. Karen Hesse knowingly or unknowingly deconstructed traditional aesthetic and political assumptions and simultaneously explored a celebration of difference.
If you are inclined to test my thesis that young adult verse novels are (1) an example of women’s writing, and thus (2) inherently subversive of conventional and traditional notions of significance and signification, then I suggest that you read Virginia Euwer Wolff’s award-winning novel True Believer: A Novel in the Make Lemonade Trilogy. Although we have been cautioned by D.H. Lawrence to trust the tale and not the teller, I must share with you a couple of statements by Wolff about True Believer. First of all, Wolff admits that she is doing something unconventional, even radical in the publishing world. She says, “When I was writing Make Lemonade [also written as a verse novel], it began to occur to me that I couldn’t be doing what I was doing. I was not allowed to do this. All these things that I knew you had to do, I wasn’t doing. I was just doing a really different thing. Gradually the question came up from my stomach and made its way to my cerebrum and got asked, ‘How are you going to feel when reviewers say, she can’t do this?’ I really had to think about that. The answer was there are girls out there who need this book, I hope, and I am writing it for them. I’m not writing it for reviewers. That was very freeing.” Virginia Euwer Wolff sounds an awful lot like another Virginia Wolff to me.
Wolff also claims that the books are not poetry. “Lord love us,” she says, “We are not trying to write poetry. It’s not that presumptuous. It’s not that arrogant.” To Wolff’s humility I say, “Hogwash.” Of course it is poetry. It looks like poetry. It sounds like poetry. It contains poetic conventions such as anaphora free verse, prose poetry, and shaped poetry. It is poetry. But Wolff claims: “…that’s how LaVaughn talks. She’s the narrator.” In other words, Wolff thinks of women’s language as poetic language. She asserts that they are the same semiotic discourse.
Language (or our notion of language and the novel format) is not the only tradition that Wolff subverts in True Believer. She also calls into question through LaVaughn our interpretation and representation of sexual orientation. LaVaughn falls in love with Jody (a name which, by the way, can be for a male or a female), a handsome boy her own age. She surprises Jody one day with a plate of cookies: “The first thing I saw was the lamplight on the fishtank,/ and two people, just their heads/ partly hidden behind the tank./ Like they were whispering to each other./ I got my eyes to focus and/ there was something in my spine pulling me back/ but something in my eyes pushing me forward/ and I recognized Jody not the other one,/ I only noticed it was a boy,/ I stood ice-still and I saw their mouths go together and stay/ and I froze./ the plate of cookies/ went straight onto the rug/ and my lifetime jumped upside down./ I could not be LaVaughn anymore./ This could not be my life./ I backed out the door/ and I halfway got it closed/ but then I took off/ running” (194).
LaVaughn did not know Jody was gay because Jody did not fit LaVaughn’s construction of gay boys. Wolff challenges many other social constructs including class. La Vaughn’s lab partner, Patrick, acts outside of LaVaughn’s narrow view of socio-economic classes. Myrtle and Annie are members of the Jesus Club, yet they tell LaVaughn they are “sposed to limit our contact with non-Christians.” On the other hand, a minister that LaVaughn meets on the street tells LaVaughn, “Of course./ We welcome everyone.? We’re mere human beings./ God doesn’t turn anyone away,/ and neither do we” (227). LaVaughn begins to question the nature of God and the connection between religion and spirituality. Who is the “true believer”? Family, identity, and race as social constructs are also challenged in the book. Even the cover of the book, which has a shape shifting figure of an hour glass or two individuals, supports the deconstruction of seeing what is “true.”
Wolff intentionally omits last names, place, and ethnicity in True Believer. She says, “The ethnic group is not identified and the state is not identified.” Nevertheless, when I ask my students to place LaVaughn in an ethnic group, they always say, “She is African American.”
“How do you know she is African-American?” I challenge them. Here is their evidence:
Her name is black, LaVaughn. She is poor and lives in the projects with a single (and powerful) mother. Her friends have been victimized by gang activity. She has been placed in a remedial school group until the teachers recognize her intelligence. She talks black. (By the way, lest you think that Viterbo is filled with racist cretins, my only black student this year also explained to the class why he assumed that LaVaughn may be African American.) One year, just before I left for another NCTE conference, one of my students said to me, “Find out if Virginia Euwer Wolff is black.” Well, I met Ms. Wolff, and she is a short middle-aged white woman. Again, Wolff challenges us to rethink our cultural assumptions about racial identity. The novel forces the readers to ask themselves:
What happens to the experience of reading when the readers cannot determine the race of the characters?
Does the racial identity of the characters matter when the readers consider the themes of the novel? Is True Believer even about race? Or is it about finding an authentic self through authentic relationships?
Is the difference and division between Americans of color and white Americans simply one of contrast? Or is one’s identity and power connected to race? In other words, are the readers comfortable with eliminating race from identity?
What happens to the experience of reading when the readers cannot determine the sexual orientation of some of the characters? What does this suggest about sexuality as a social construct or a genetic disposition? Does Wolff liberate or confuse the reader?
True Believer is a perfect example of how form creates meaning. Now we are back to that second question asked 20 minutes ago: What effect does this discourse have on the reader? In our English 103 and 104 classes we preach persuasive argument as the proper form of academic discourse. It is the analytic form of academic discourse grounded in reason, logic, and the rational mind which leads the reader to truth. But by writing a novel in verse instead of prose, Wolff decenters and perhaps dismisses this assumption. She suggests that poetry may be the more precise way of looking at the world because poetry both bridges and unhinges. It expands and condenses. And it is the inseparability of these apparent contradictions that allows poetry to energize us and to force us to re-examine meaning, identity, subject, other, and experience. This re-examination may result in cracking, fragmenting, dissolving, expanding, or even exploding our “safe” definitions—but Wolff makes the poetic experience an electric and life-changing experience.
Poets have been using
verse to create meaning and definitions of race, gender, religion, and self for
many years. One only needs to read the
reviews of John Greenleaf Whittier’s postbellum poem,
“Snow-bound,” a poem that was labeled “our national idyll,” to see how verse
can define the “American” race and American democracy. Edmund Clarence Stedman in 1885 named
If we dare label Wolff
as a deconstructionist, then we can say that True Believer has become a classroom favorite because it attempts
to dismantle how we define
My time is up and so let me conclude
by quoting from our guest poet, Donald Revell. I am grateful that Mr. Revell
is not in the audience right now, because it is always intimidating to talk
about a poet’s work in front of the poet himself. But Mr. Revell is
not here, and so I can admit to you that when I first began reading
But I am most interested today in
how Mr. Revell defines poetry. He says, “Poetry is about trying to put a
stop to people lying to themselves.” ().
I love this quote because this is exactly how Euwer
Wolff uses poetry in True Believer—LaVaughn learns to stop lying to herself. She begins to participate in a resistance (Revell’s word) to break down personal and social
generalizations, stereotypes, lies, and injustice that blind her and bind her
from becoming a person who does not harm others (again, Revell’s
adds, “I distrust any name. I think it’s
the project of poetry, the project of writing, the project of reading, the
project of doing almost anything to unnamed things. I think that I’m a better poet the more I unbuild myself” ().
Isn’t that wonderful advice? Unbuild self. Unbuild race. Unbuild sexual orientation.
Unbuild language. Unbuild
gender. Keith Flynn suggests that
“Emerson is the great unseen presence in
America when the song "Yankee Doodle" first became popular, the word
macaroni in the line that reads "stuck a feather in his hat and called it
macaroni" didn't refer to the pasta. Instead, "Macaroni" was a
fancy and overdressed ("dandy") style of Italian clothing widely
my understanding of Plato’s view of art I am relying upon two sources: Murdoch, Iris, Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and
Frost’s work is especially intriguing because Frost uses a variety of conventional poetic forms in her “novels.” Frost also includes at the conclusion of her works a glossary of poetry terms as well as notes on which titles in the work reflect the different forms—terza rima, sonnet, villanelle, haiku, etc.
See Coats, Karen, “Conventions of Children’s Literature: Then and Now,” Style, 35.3, fall, 2001, 389.
Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. See also den Ouden, Pamela, “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,”
Julia Kristeva’s “The Meaning of Equality,” in
Contemporary French Feminism, eds. Oliver and Walsh,
“The Meaning of Equality,” Contemporary French Feminisms, eds. Oliver
Lechte, Julia Kristeva.
Fetterley, Judith, The Resisting Reader
Cixous, Helene, “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Feminisms: An
Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, eds,
Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl.
See Hutcins, Christina, “Poetry as Performativity and Exces: An Essay on Politics and Anti-foundational Academic Discourse and Seven Poems on Sedimentation,” Paideusis: Journal for Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Studies,. Volume 2, 1999.
endowed Whitman with the title
Sorby, Angela, Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance,
and the Place of American Poetry, 1865-1917.
Ralph Waldo, Selected Writings of Ralph