Readers of Ally Condie’s bestsellers Matched (a 2011 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, among the 2011 Best Fiction for Young Adults titles, a 2011 Readers’ Choice Nomination, and among the 2011 Teens’ Top Ten) and Crossed will know that poetry plays a key role in these dystopian tales. The Society in which heroine Cassia Reyes lives controls choice with an iron hand, to the extent that there are only 100 acceptable poems. Knowing or possessing a copy of an off-list poem is a crime. Cassia’s dying grandfather shares with her Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” a forbidden poem that inspires her to start asking questions–the most dangerous act in a totalitarian state.
In the sequel, Crossed, another banned poem, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” is the rallying cry of the Rebellion. Tennyson writes of the Pilot, whom he hopes to “see face to face” as God, and the bar to be crossed as that between life and death. In Crossed, rebels speak of “the Pilot” as the leader who will direct their Rising, and the bar to be crossed is that between the repressive present and the idealized past.
Condie’s use of poetry made me think about other novels in which authors use poems as integral parts of the story. The first book that came to mind was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (the 1988 Margaret A. Edwards Award Winner; the book made the 2006 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults list) and the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. Ponyboy shares it with his friend Johnny when they are hiding out after Johnny accidentally kills another boy. It perfectly expresses the boys’ tenuous circumstances and the fleeting nature of youth and innocence, the “dawn that goes down to day.”
Blast back further into the past to recall L.M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables (among the 1998 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults), which references the Tennyson poem “Lancelot and Elaine,” a version of the Lady of Shalott story. Anne and friends dream up the idea of dramatizing the poem, as the romance of Camelot appeals to their dramatic natures. Naturally, Anne plays Elaine and floats down the river on a flat. It wouldn’t be Anne if the flat didn’t spring a leak, soaking her dignity but leaving her to a far better fate than that of the doomed Elaine.
L.A. Meyer’s The Mark of the Golden Dragon (latest in the “Bloody Jack” adventures) borrows from the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes for both story and character development. In the poem, the heroine Bess sacrifices herself to save her beloved thief, who, bereft of a reason to live, then is shot down “like a dog on the highway.” Jaimy Fletcher, the betrothed of Meyer’s heroine Jacky Faber, similarly takes up a life of crime as the Black Highwayman when he is driven mad by Jacky’s presumed death. He likewise dates a girl named Bess, who then becomes his partner in crime. Again, Jaimy comes to a better end, ensuring anther installment in this fun series.
Another book in which a poem and a plot line intersect is Dreamland by Sarah Dessen (a 2001 Best Book for Young Adults and a 2003 Popular Paperback for Young Adults). The main character Caitlin is trapped in a nightmare of domestic abuse. She reads T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in English class and identifies with its ideas of separateness and rejection, as she lives in a similar kind of dream-state, drowning in fear and shame.
Poems also set the mood in Maggie Stiefvater’s supernatural romance Shiver (a 2010 Best Book for Young Adults and a 2010 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers), particularly the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, whom the werewolf Sam frequently quotes. Rilke also supplied the title for the sequel Linger, from a line in “To HÃ¶lderlin:” “We are not permitted to linger, even with what is most intimate.” In Linger, Sam also recalls the high school chestnut that he had been made to memorize: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost.
Dianna Wynne Jones works the John Donne poem “Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star” into Howl’s Moving Castle–it becomes the curse that the Witch of the Waste puts on Howl. Coincidentally (or as a tribute?), Neil Gaiman also begins Stardust with the same poem!
Other authors use quotes from poems to establish a mood for individual chapters. Meg Cabot introduces each chapter in the fantasy-romance Avalon High (a 2010 Popular Paperback for Young Adults) with a stanza from Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” a fitting choice as her characters correspond to people in the King Arthur story. Cassandra Clare takes a slightly different spin on this tactic in Clockwork Angel (a 2011 Teens’ Top Ten title), beginning each chapter with a quote that would have been familiar to the characters in 1870s London. (The blog Novel Novice provides a comprehensive list of all of the quoted poems.) Stephenie Meyer also uses quotes from poems (and the Bible) at the beginning of chapters in the Twilight books (which were 2006 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers and among the 2006 Best Books for Young Adults).
Using a line from a poem in a book’s preface to establish the mood for an entire work is another popular writer’s tool. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs is just one example; it begins with an excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Illusions” to establish a suitably creepy atmosphere: “Sleep is not, Death is not, Who seem to die live….â€
All this doesn’t even touch on quotes from Shakespearean sonnets that are featured in YA fiction!
Does the use of poetry in novels make poetry itself more popular? What other YA novels can you think of in which poems play a significant role? Did a poem’s reference in a book entice you to go to the source and read more of that poet’s work?
— Suzanne Neumann, currently reading What Boys Want by Pete Hautman