World Poetry Day: 8+ beautiful contemporary novels in verse

Outside of listening to music, poetry is a difficult medium for many people to get into. (That’s me, I’m a lot of people.) Schools try to prepare us to appreciate poetry, but unless you pay attention to it early and know the references, you can feel very lost. Public projects like Our Poetica (on YouTube) aim to help those interested in poetry by reading short excerpts twice a week. I’ve found the most success in exploring this kind of storytelling through narrative poetry, and for World Poetry Day, I want to help you on the same journey.

LiteraryDevices.Net defines narrative poetry as “a narrative poem that tells a story. It has a full story with all the elements of a traditional story. These elements include characters, plot, conflict and resolution, setting, and action. Although a narrative poem doesn’t need a rhyming pattern, it is a measured poem with clear goals to reach a specific audience. These poems were borrowed from oral poetic accounts of different cultures. Narrative poems include old epics, lays and ballads.

So, instead of single poems with a few lines or verses sharing an idea or emotion, narrative poetry tells a whole story in verse. Often the structure is looser too, so it feels familiar, like lyrical prose writing. Here are eight fascinating works of narrative poetry written in recent years.

Solo by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess

Solo by Mary Rand Hess with Kwame Alexander.  Image: Blinking.

The son of an infamous rockstar struggling with addiction, Blade struggles to be seen as his own person by the parents of his girlfriend, Chapel. Except for having money, Blade sees his single father as an obstacle, and this fact is made more evident after his father drunkenly crashes Blade’s high school graduation speech. The fallout leads to the revelation of a family secret that could change Blade and his father forever.

This 2019 novel is the second team of the duo Hess and Alexander. Alexander has many acclaimed books in verse, including Reserve and crossing. In addition to the musical elements of the story, Solo is often listed as YA and Middle Grade, which might make it even more accessible.

The real life of red riding hood by Lana Hechtman Ayers

The Real Life of Red Riding Hood: A Novel in Verse by Lana Hechtman Ayers.  Image: Nightly Rain Press.
(Night Rain Press)

Ayers’ 2017 novel takes several folk tales and places them in a modern setting to explore youth, marriage, infidelity, and more, primarily through the character of Red Riding Hood. This intimate (sometimes erotic) story can be very accessible as many of us are already familiar with this cast of characters and have experienced their adaptations over the years, such as Shrek, Deceiveand Fable.

The poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo.  Image: Feather Tree
(Feathered Tree Books)

Afro-Latina Xiomara Batista lives under her mother’s strict religious rules in their Harlem home and recounts her feelings about growing up in her leather notebook. This cathartic outing turns into an opportunity to enter a slam poetry contest. When I listened to the audio book (narrated by the author), I thought the book was just a great story told by a talented actress. It wasn’t until I purchased a physical copy of this 2018 National Book Award winner (and one of my favorite YA novels) that I realized I had been reading poetry. That’s up to me, but it’s also a testament to the accessibility of Acevedo’s subject matter and language.

If you have already read The poet Xtry Clap when you land but take the audiobook. This novel had mixed reviews, and that seems to stem from the fact that Acevedo originally wrote it from the perspective of one character instead of two. This problem is much less apparent in audiobook form.

The long takeor a slower way to lose by Robin Robertson

The Long Take or A Way to Lose More Slowly by Robin Robertson.  Picture: Knopf.

Often simply called The long take, the Scottish poet Robin Robertson shares the life of a veteran of the Second World War returning to civilian life. The 2018 noir novel follows the Canadian veteran as he travels through three major US cities (New York, San Francisco and Los Angelos) and touches the lives of other veterans struggling with issues of displacement, poverty, racism and right now.

Long way down by Jason Reynolds

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.  Image: Books of the Athenaeum.
(Books of the Athenaeum)

I’ve been really debating whether or not to include this 2019 book since it’s so famous and this list was already 50% YA, but I’m doing this for the only person reading this who doesn’t know Jason Reynolds’ Long way down. After learning of the death of his brother (Shawn) due to a gang crime, 15-year-old Will knows he can’t go to the police but must avenge his brother. Starting on the seventh floor, Will takes an elevator and is met on each floor by someone related to his brother or those ravaged by gun violence. Will must decide if he will stand up for his brother or continue this cycle of violence.

Abacus of loss by Sholeh Wolpe

Abacus of Loss: A Memoir in Verse by Sholeh Wolpé.  Image: University of Arkansas Press.

In her 2022 memoir, the Iranian-American poet and playwright uses the concept of one of the earliest counting devices (an abacus) to chronicle her time abroad. In addition to traveling as an artist, Wolpé grew up in Tehran (Iran) and spent his teenage years in Trinidad and Great Britain before stopping in America. While she counts her losses and our collective losses (personal, cultural and global), Wolpé also expresses deep gratitude for what we still have left.

Me (Mite) by Amber McBride

Me (Moth) by Amber McBride.  Image: Feiwel and his friends.
(Feiwel and his friends)

After many immediate family members die in an accident, Moth’s aunt takes him in. While grieving in her new home, Moth meets a boy struggling with mental health issues, named Sani. Sani searches for her roots in hopes of understanding her current issues with depression. Together, they go on a journey in search of the ghosts of their past and their ancestors. McBride’s debut novel was a finalist for the 2021 National Book Award in Children’s Literature.

(image: Quill Tree Books, Knopf and Night Rain Press)

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