Wave and Stone, Verse and Prose: Novels-in-Verse vs. Poetic Narratives
Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red: a
Novel-in-verse. Vintage Books, 1998. 149 pages
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Shelving a shipment of books one day at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where I work as a bookseller, my co-workers and I came across poet Joe Wenderoth’s latest book, Letters to Wendy’s. Presented as a series of dated, postcard-sized, first-person observations about sex, death, and fast food after the fashion of restaurant comment cards, the book immediately won the affection of virtually all the staff present, but our delight shortly shifted to dismay when we had to figure out where in the store the brilliantly written and frequently hilarious book belonged. Where, we wondered, were we supposed to shelve it? The back of the book identifies it as “fiction,” but the work inside has the appearance of prose poetry. Wenderoth’s first two books were collections of poems, but this was being billed as a novel. So should we put it in fiction? Or stick it with poetry?
We consulted Amazon.com, where one effusive reviewer compared Wenderoth to Nabokov and another called Letters “the most significant series of poems since Berryman’s Dream Songs.” Wenderoth himself, who was kind enough to speak with me on the phone about the matter, expressed reluctance over classifying the work as strictly one thing or another, yet ultimately pointed out that since Letters features a protagonist who develops over the course of what amounts to a gentle narrative arc, it certainly does possess novelistic traits. Reading it, though, the short chapters or sections—each one no more than a page in length, and each quite capable of standing on its own as a self-contained piece—lend the work a compression and an attention to concise expressive language not found in your average novel. “August 2, 1996,” for example, puts one in mind of Rilke’s “Der Panther:” “There is the question of who I really am, the tiger or the trainer. Am I this caged pulse, this pacing strength and silence, or do I stand around it, calming it, endlessly talking, singing, making whatever noise I can to bring it closer to sleep?” Eventually, we wound up putting Letters in what we hoped would be an impulse-buy inducing stack next to the front registers, but the incident stayed with me as a microcosmic illustration of the difficulty of critically apprehending the nature of such cross-genre works.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was right when he called prose “words in their
best order” and poetry “the best words in their best order,” then
where does that leave the so-called novel-in-verse? Heralded by Vikram
Seth’s surprise bestseller The
Golden Gate—the story of the loves and losses of a group of hip
young Californians, and one of the most highly acclaimed books of
1986—this puzzling, inviting, and maddeningly hard-to-characterize
hybrid form has enjoyed a startling surge of interest in recent years. It
seems as though authors everywhere are trying their hands at hammering
them out, even if they don’t always call them that, and even though such
projects risk going largely unread by a public that has little idea what
to make of them.
practitioners of this elusive genre seem well aware of how
under-appreciated their work is likely to be. At a reading at the George
Washington University in 2001, for instance, Paul Muldoon remarked wryly
that he would read from his novel-in-verse, Madoc:
a Mystery—even though no one else, not even his family, would. And
at this year’s AWP Conference in Chicago during a seminar entitled
“The Long Poem: What’s the Point?”, Kim Addonizio (author of the
novel-in-verse Jimmy and Rita)
cracked that since no one reads poetry anyway, you might as well write
what you want. In a letter to the poet and critic Prince Pyotr Vyazemski
on 4 November 1823, Aleksandr Pushkin declared of his own landmark work, Eugene Onegin, “As to my occupations, I am writing now—not a
novel—but a novel-in-verse—a deuced difference [or “a devil of a
difference”]. And certainly, the difference is a devilish one, which
forces authors and readers alike to reconsider the literary distinctions
they’re used to making, and to admit the existence of a category
they’re not used to thinking about. For although poetry always has
been—and always will be—a crucial component of literature, verse as a
means of extended narrative storytelling has largely given way to the
relatively more free and naturalistic form of prose.
its extensive entry on the distinctions between verse and prose, The
New Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms urges us to remember that
modern notions of prose “are localized and conventional, formed largely
by the invention of printing, the shape of the codex page, and (esp.) the
development of the novel” and explains that in the ancient and medieval
worlds, “the kinds of expository texts now automatically cast into prose
were often cast in verse, including works on botany, zoology, astronomy,
physics, history, genealogy, law, medicine, philosophy, mathematics,
rhetoric and grammar. So were all fictional texts. All the literary genres
were once versified; now only some are.” Although this goes to show that
the dividing line between poetry and prose has not always been so rigid,
historically speaking, the two genres are decidedly separate now in the
minds of most modern readers and writers. If anything, we take this strict
dichotomy—poetry evokes whereas prose describes, poetry tends towards
brevity whereas prose provides lengthy discourse—almost completely for
granted, and when a work comes along that runs counter to this taxonomy,
we can scarcely conceive of a category in which to put it.
For the purposes of this essay in particular, and the ease of literary taxonomy in general, I’m going to insist that very few works actually qualify as authentic novels-in-verse. Many contemporary authors—Anne Carson, Bernardine Evaristo, and Paul Muldoon among them—have applied the term to their works, yet most of them have not, in fact, written what I’d characterize as true novels-in-verse. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I’ll get to that later. For now, I’d like to propose a restrictive definition of the term. If we can agree with Harry Shaw, author of The Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms, that novels are “lengthy fictitious prose narrative[s] portraying characters and presenting an organized series of events and settings,” then we may define novels-in-verse by simply substituting the word “verse,” where he uses “prose”— and where verse signifies the consistent use of a strict verse form, such as ottava rima, terza rima, the sonnet, and so forth. In other words, true novels-in-verse possess not only such novelistic elements as a cast of characters and a plot complete with rising action, conflict, crisis, and resolution, but also such conventional verse elements as rhyme and meter. This is an exclusive definition, I know, but a critically useful one, which helps to differentiate the true novel-in-verse from long poems such as William Carlos Williams’ Paterson or W.H. Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, and other more nebulous forms. By this definition, then, the official list of genuine novels-in-verse written during the last two centuries or so is a short one.
Although it is widely considered to be the longest satirical poem in English, I propose that Byron’s serio-comic masterpiece Don Juan fits the profile of a novel-in-verse. For while Byron presents the piece as an endless monologue in strict ottava rima, Don Juan nonetheless tells a coherent, episodic story over the course of its 2000 stanzas. Aleksandr Pushkin, himself the author of arguably the finest novel-in-verse ever written, would agree with me, writing in his own masterpiece, Eugene Onegin, of “Lord Byron, [who] by an opportune caprice, has draped in glum romanticism even hopeless egotism”, indicating his awareness of the long shadow cast by his predecessor. Yet although Byron managed to be one of the first practitioners of the form—he began publishing Don Juan in installments in 1819, and continued working on it almost until his death in 1824—Pushkin managed, just a few years later, to be the best. Whereas Byron’s work breaks off with Canto 16, Pushkin’s entry into the field stands as a completed and coherent whole.
A complex story written in an even more complex form, Onegin operates consistently on multiple and frequently self-reflexive levels. At times, in fact, Pushkin seems to be writing not only about events in the lives of his characters, but also about the best way to compose a novel-in-verse:
But Lenski, not having, of course,
Thus does Pushkin simultaneously describe the friendship of Lenski and Onegin and the ideal relationship of prose and poetry in novels-in-verse.
Originally published in Russia in 1833, the most recent version of Nabokov’s superior translation of Eugene Onegin became available in 1975. Little surprise, then, that Vikram Seth found in Onegin both the inspiration and the blueprint for his own—and only—foray into this hybrid realm. Like Pushkin, Seth chose to compose his novel entirely in sonnets. And when I say entirely, I mean entirely—including even the acknowledgements: “My debts are manifold and various: / First, Stanford University / Where, with progressively precarious Nurture, / my tardy Ph.D. / Has waxed, and waxes, lax and sickly”), the dedication (“So here they are, the chapters ready, / And, half against my will, I’m free / Of this warm enterprise, this heady / Labor that has exhausted me”), and the table of contents (“1 The world’s discussed while friends are eating. / 2 A cache of billets-doux arrive. / A concert generates a meeting. / A house is warmed. Sheep come alive”). Owing largely to its big-hearted sense of humor and Seth’s own wry self-deprecation over his decision to work in such an occasionally tedious and taxing genre, The Golden Gate succeeds as the most effective and engaging contemporary example of this rather archaic form.
Despite widespread critical and popular acclaim, Seth has never sought to duplicate The Golden Gate, and it remains his only novel-in-verse, thereby illustrating what appears to be a common impulse: to write one as an experiment of sorts, and then to move on. Although he took as his template not Eugene Onegin but rather Don Juan, Anthony Burgess, like Seth, wrote only one novel-in-verse over the course of his literary career. Posthumously published in 1995, Burgess’s tale of the decadent and hedonistic failed artist and composer Michael Byrne imitates its predecessor in its use of strict verse form and its dissolute subject matter. His vitriolic satire succeeds because it refuses to take either its subject or its form too seriously. For while he relies largely on Byronic ottava rima, Burgess has no qualms about throwing in a few sonnets and some nine-line Spenserian stanzas when the need arises. Moreover, like Seth, Burgess opts, in his own characteristically provocative and iconoclastic way, to comically mock his chosen form: “Why choose this agony of versifying / Instead of tapping journalistic prose? / Call it a tribute to a craft that’s dying, / Call it a harmless hobby. Art, god knows, /Doesn’t come into it.” Crammed with sex and violence, Byrne displays many of the same preoccupations found in Burgess’s prose work, and as entertaining as the end result is, he seems to have written this novel-in-verse largely to prove that he could.
Even though a variety of authors attempt to tackle the exacting task of the true novel-in-verse, perhaps chiefly to see if they can, the ones who prove most adept at it, at least contemporarily, seem to be those who consider themselves first and foremost to be novelists. The poets, as I’m about to show, are sadly less successful. To his credit, 1992 Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott bucks the aforementioned trend of authors penning only one novel-in-verse before calling it quits—he has written two. The first of them, Omeros, published in 1990 after Walcott had already brought out nine collections of poetry and numerous plays, begins with a promising enough premise—that of a Caribbean take on the epic poetry of Homer. The resulting book, however, rapidly falls victim to the necessarily slavish devotion to form required by Walcott’s decision to write it entirely in terza rima. Writers from T.S. Eliot to Joseph Brodsky have famously acknowledged how awkward the scheme can be without the intrinsic assonance of Italian, and impressive though Walcott’s ability to sustain this notoriously difficult rhyme is, the pattern becomes tedious almost immediately. Moreover, the scheme makes the speech of the characters seem forced and implausible, and the line breaks seem ill-considered and strained, as when Book One, Chapter One commences with:
“This is how, one sunrise, we cut down them canoes.”
Admittedly, Omeros stands as an admirable testament to a modern poet’s ability to compose tercets with the best of them, but—ultimately weighing in at 325 pages—the book’s unerring adherence to strict verse form can’t help but seem like overkill.
Billed not as a novel-in-verse but as a single book-length poem—although I maintain it may be considered the former—Walcott’s Tiepolo’s Hound illustrates not only the pitfall of the novel-in-verse’s potential tedium and showiness, but also its tendency to render plot too thinly. Based on the interwoven experiences of the poet himself and the displaced Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, a Sephardic Jew who left his native St. Thomas in pursuit of an artistic career in Paris, the work’s subject matter ends up being inadequate to sustain itself compellingly over such an extended length. Again, although the book’s steady abab rhyme scheme illustrates once again Walcott’s unquestionable stamina, the premise of the poet’s own quest to rediscover “a slash of pink on the inner thigh / of a white hound entering the cave of a table, / so exact in its lucency at The Feast of Levi” appears to be a contrived excuse for a story on which the poet can hang his undisputed facility with rhyme. I wanted to enjoy both of the aforementioned novels-in-verse far more than I did, yet their unswerving adherence to formalism and verse mechanics prevented me from doing so. Still, Walcott is inarguably a talented, accomplished, and essential poet and playwright.
Time’s Fool—the Flying Dutchman-inspired story of the never-aging 17-year-old Edmund Lea, doomed by the committing of a deadly crime to travel the British countryside on a ghost train, returning home only every seventh Christmas Eve—by Walcott’s friend and protégé Glyn Maxwell suffers from similar problems. Maxwell, too, has opted to compose his novel-in-verse entirely in terza rima, filling his tale with elaborate Dantean flourishes. The opening chapter, “The Chance In Hell,” is intended to evoke the dark wood of The Inferno, but the resulting verse seems inordinately weak and derivative when thrust into so direct a comparison with the 13th-century master:
When the train stopped I started and woke up.
This pattern grows so wearisome that the prose glosses with which Maxwell precedes each of the book’s nine chapters provide an unexpectedly welcome respite. In fact, these mini-introductions frequently manage to tell the story with far more concision and intrigue than the actual verse, as in Chapter 3, which is prefaced with “AUTUMN 1970. Edmund calls in love with Clare, a classmate, and believes his love is returned. He is the envy of all his friends, but on Christmas Eve a stranger, Cole, arrives at the Oak pub and seduces Clare. Walking the dark streets in misery, Edmund encounters Cole, who seems poised to jump off a railway bridge. Edmund tries to talk him down…” At times like these, Maxwell renders it virtually unnecessary to read the accompanying poetry.
That said, Maxwell at least seems to acknowledge his own misgivings about his genre of choice by titling his work not a “novel-in-verse” but a “tale in verse.” Sensible though his impulse is, I maintain that in so doing he addresses the wrong half of the problem, for the trouble with expectations fostered by the available taxonomy stems less from the novelistic side and more from the verse one. Alfred Corn handily addresses the problematic implications of “verse” in the chapter on “Unmetered Poetry” in his book The Poem’s Heartbeat: a Manual of Prosody explaining: “the connotations of that word are mostly negative, reserved for poems of little scope or importance. When we say, ‘Oh yes, so-and-so writes verse,’ we aren’t usually talking about the work of a serious artist. Ask any poet whether she or he would prefer to write ‘poetry’ or ‘verse', and you’ll see what I mean.” Thus, it comes as little surprise that the label “novels-in-verse” tends to be met with skepticism. In fact, I’d like to suggest here that—unless you happen to be, say, Dante, Pope, Milton, Byron or Pushkin (or possibly Anthony Burgess or Vikram Seth, because you will therefore be paying direct homage to the latter two, respectively)—you should probably steer clear of strict verse forms. For in addition to all the attendant negative associations with the word, the actual application of verse techniques over extended narrative sequences tends to render what should be exciting, vital, and fresh unnecessarily static, closed, uninviting, and archaic.
I don’t wish to remain in this negative vein for too much longer, but I feel that my discussion of the failings of the verse element of so-called “novels-in-verse” would be incomplete without a mention of Brad Leithauser’s deeply disappointing entry into the field, Darlington’s Fall, the maudlin tale of a tragically doomed midwestern entomologist. Walcott and Maxwell’s meticulous adherence to form may bore you, but you can at least admire their skill and craftsmanship; Leithauser’s use of form, on the other hand, manages to be both dull and weakly-crafted. In his author’s note, Leithauser expresses mild anxiety over the hybrid nature of his chosen form, writing, “It’s long, I know, for a poem (5,708 lines) but short for a novel (46,265 words, my computer tells me), and a novel’s what I aimed to create here.” He also offers “a word about method, for those interested in verse mechanics. Having permitted myself rhymes that fall catch-as-catch-can, I vowed that nearly every line would have an exact, or perfect, rhyme. I’ve eagerly made exception, though, for those irregular rhymes I often prefer to ‘perfection’: especially rime riche (prays/praise) and pararhymes or rim rhymes (please/applause).” His agony over the project—or, as he interjects, “Well, project’s probably // As good a word as any for my cross-bred enterprise, / Whose roundabout design should be plain”—seems well-founded, for right from the outset his language is slack and repetitious as he stretches lines out to meet the requirements of his chosen form. He also resorts frequently to flat, easy rhymes like “wing,” “nothing,” “chancing,” “thing,” “astonishing” all of which appear in a single stanza on page 31.
Thus, sadly, does
Leithauser find himself trapped in a formal cage of his own creation, one
which causes Darlington’s Fall
to succeed neither as a novel nor as a poem. The plot is far too dull to
provide enough energy for a 313-page book—as one might surmise when, by
page 172, the only sign of an interesting twist is Darlington’s daring
decision to “take a chance / On an odd proposal from a former student, /
Now a publisher in New York: would Russ care to try / To write a textbook,
an ‘intro to biology’?”—and the language is far too uninteresting
to provide truly exciting poetry. Eventually, when the book ends with the
crippled Darlington’s confession of love and impending marriage to his
fallen Polish maid Marja, a red-haired working-class girl half his age, we
realize (even though this portion is allegedly set in the 1930s) that we
have stumbled into some bizarrely reactionary, late-Victorian
angel-in-the-house wish-fulfillment fantasy, as Darlington concludes
“the best proof he has, in all the universe / Of some sly, resolute
Goodness at the root of life / Is the existence of Marja Szumski. Who lets
him hold / Her hand in his.” Thus, instead of succeeding in
creating—as the best novels-in-verse do—a work that is every bit as
intriguing and vital as the best works in pure poetry or prose, Leithauser
winds up sacrificing both the novelistic and poetic elements of his
enterprise, ultimately accomplishing neither well.
Over the course of researching this piece, I began to discover that the contemporary works I had identified as true novels-in-verse based on my restrictive definition were less effective and satisfying pieces of literature than the works I had exempted because—although they combined fictive elements with poetic ones—they relied on looser structures, as opposed to fixed forms. At best, such works as The Golden Gate and Byrne excel as entertaining and engaging novelties, while such works as Omeros and Time’s Fool essentially amount to extremely well-executed literary exercises. At worst, such works as Darlington’s Fall seem more like ill-conceived parlor tricks than sound aesthetic projects. Across the board, however, virtually all contemporary novels-in-verse stand as little more than artistic dead ends. No matter how good or bad they are, contemporary novels-in-verse in the strictest sense simply do not suggest new solutions to poetic problems.
Yet truly hybrid works that meet neither the definition of the novel, nor the definition of verse, nor my definition of the novel-in-verse do; they make it possible to express fresh ideas in refreshing ways, thereby opening doors on new means of literary expression. The reader who finishes The Golden Gate might close the book thinking to herself simply, “Well, how impressive. That was neat, the way he could keep it up with the sonnets for so long;” whereas the reader finishing Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red might think, “How odd; I’d like to try to write something like that,” or, at the very least, “My god, that was strange.” And as Viktor Shklovsky tells us in “Art as Technique,” one of the purposes of poetry is to make the world strange: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” The laboriously crafted and therefore predictable rhythms of Maxwell and Walcott, and even the more whimsical ones of Seth, are neither particularly strange nor particularly complex or pleasurable to read; the reader sees the rhymes coming from miles away and can easily absorb them once they arrive. As a result of their formal rigidity, contemporary novels-in-verse contain few surprises, few moments of discovery, and very little mystery. Thus, the best poetic/novelistic hybrids are in fact the ones which don’t seem to worry overtly about what exactly they are, the ones which fret about neither their novel-ness (by self-consciously padding their simplistic plots), nor their verse-ness (by restricting themselves to archaic metrical forms), but which rather allow themselves to find their own best form as opposed to being ruled by readers’ expectations.
agonized at length about what to call these hybrids to which I’ve been
referring—Prosetry? Loose poetic novels? Novelistic poetry? I seriously
considered labeling them linked narrative collections, for not only do
successful works in this genre function as unified wholes, but—unlike
true novels-in-verse—they also can be disassembled into their basic
component parts; each individual poem can stand on its own. In this way,
such works operate in a manner akin to concept albums such as Sergeant
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or, more recently, Ok,
Computer, on which each track is related to the surrounding ones, but
can be a pleasure to listen to all by itself. This label applies perfectly
to books like Mose by Loren
Graham or Letters to Wendy’s
by Joe Wenderoth, but doesn’t quite cover books like Autobiography
of Red by Anne Carson or The
Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo. Thus I settled at last on the
term non-idiomatic poetic narratives, because their language resembles
poetry far more than prose, and because, while they are decidedly
narrative, they contain far fewer than the average novel’s 70,000 words.
Moreover, they’re non-idiomatic because although they have a form (the
alternating long and short lines of Autobiography
of Red, for instance, or the tercets of Mose)
it’s just not a received form that comes with the baggage of clear
antecedents (as when Walcott or Maxwell use terza
rima, or Seth uses Pushkin-style
The best of these non-idiomatic poetic narratives are identical neither to traditional novels, nor to conventional poetry; they contain aspects of each genre, but in such a combination as to achieve a form that is almost entirely new. Reading them, one doesn’t get the impression, for instance, that the author produced the work as a result of some sort of perverse bet. (“Bet you can’t write 307 pages of sonnets.” “Okay, you’re on.”) Rather, one gets the sense that these works were written as they were—recounting relatively loose, simple narratives in stylized, frequently playful poetic language—because that was the best way, if not the only way, for the author to create his or her art. Anne Carson prefaces her novel-in-verse, Autobiography of Red, with an epigraph from Gertrude Stein which states “I like the feeling of words doing / as they want to do and as they have to do.” This sense of artistic inevitability—this sense that the work in question could have taken no form but the one it has—is what the well-written poetic narrative accomplishes. Instead of fixating on the demands of either genre, the authors of genuinely successful poetic narratives permit themselves and their words the freedom to do as they will.
That said, the strangeness and seemingly infinite freedom enjoyed by such poetic narratives is not without risks. Indeed, the very existence of this liminal category of the poetic narrative seems to offend or affront, or at least disturb, our readerly sense of order, for such works call into question our largely binary expectations of what books are or should be. If they’re not poetry and they’re not prose, then how do we know where to find them in the bookstore? How do we know what will be inside them? Who might like to receive them as a gift? How, in general, do we deal with them as saleable commodities? And beyond that, how do we deal with them as works of art, subverting as they do our long-held convictions about unity, structure, sense of purpose and authorial intent? Horace begins his “Epistle to the Pisos” or “Ars Poetica” with a humorous reminder of the necessity of unity of design in literature, declaring:
Suppose a painter chose to place a human head
Comic as his delivery is, Horace clearly intends this as a legitimate warning against running too wild with one’s artistic undertakings, and although approximately 2000 years have passed since he composed this cautionary tract, there are still those who would be tempted to agree that a writer who takes up the project of a non-idiomatic poetic narrative—coupling poetry and extended narrative like birds and snakes—runs the risk of winding up with a truly freakish creation that cannot possibly be taken seriously.
Yet here I’m prepared to argue
that such poetic narratives ought to be taken very seriously indeed. For
within their potential freakishness and unbridled wildness—their
Shklovsky-an strangeness and their challenging mystery—lie the greatest
strengths of this crossbred genre. For if there’s anything poetry needs
to remain vital, it’s wildness, and in this wildness the ability to
jolt, shock, and engage readers in new ways, to attract them, to draw them
in, and to show them things they’ve never seen. Traditional
forms—which is to say forms easily identifiable as either poetry or
prose—while they can certainly startle and amaze in their own right,
still have to fight against readerly perceptions of their particular
genre, whether those perceptions frame novels as bourgeois and middlebrow,
poetry as boring and willfully inaccessible, or so forth. Thus, more than
any other contemporary form, non-idiomatic poetic narratives possess an
enormous capacity to make everything old new again, to defy generic
constraints and to challenge audience expectations, thereby truly
surprising and delighting us. This is not to say that good poetic
narratives lean on their potential wildness as an excuse to be sloppy, or
to abandon formal concerns altogether. Quite to the contrary, effective
novels-in-verse exhibit a hyper-sensitive grasp of the demands and
benefits of form, exhibiting a careful mastery over it rather than
allowing it to master them, which frequently is more than can be said for
the authors of strict novels-in-verse. Thus, rather than avoiding or
merely ignoring the spate of recent entries into this genre by authors as
diverse as Ellen Bryan Voigt, Natasha Trethewey, Peg Boyers, Loren Graham,
and Rosemary Griggs to name a few, we should embrace and encourage this
hybridization. For in the best possible sense, poetic narratives can be
likened to Horace’s proscribed pairing of fierce and gentle creatures:
for more often than not, what comes of these strange bedfellows is
Fittingly, Anne Carson’s astonishing Autobiography of Red—perhaps the greatest achievement in this wild and potentially monstrous genre to date—features a protagonist who is, in fact, a monster. Drawing on her extensive expertise in the field of classical Greek literature, Carson frames the work as a collection of found poetic fragments, explaining in an intriguing mock-foreword entitled “Red Meat: What Difference Did Steischoros Make?” that “Geryon is the name of a character in ancient Greek myth about whom Steischoros wrote a very long lyric poem in dactylo-epitrite meter and triadic structure. Some eighty-four papyrus fragments and a half-dozen citations survive, which go by the name Geryoneis…They tell of a strange winged red monster who lived on an island called Erytheia (which is an adjective meaning simply ‘The Red Place’).” Thus does Carson commence to tell the free verse story of Geryon—a sensitive, artistic, winged red boy-creature raised on a volcanic island along with his sexually abusive older brother by a loving but feckless mother—whose heart is broken and whose life is inalterably changed when he falls in love with a callous young drifter named Herakles. Beginning at the age of five and continuing into early adulthood, Autobiography sounds in summary as though it could be an arcane and confusing disaster. Yet Carson achieves a unity of voice and tone, creating a world as strange and disconcerting as it is curiously human, beautiful, and true, as when she writes of Geryon’s early school days:
Outside the dark pink air
This story continues throughout the book as she recounts Geryon’s adolescent and early adult passion and longing, and although the story is ultimately a deeply sad one, she manages to make deft use of humorous grace notes, as when Geryon ends up in an impromptu brawl with his former love Herakles’ new boyfriend:
Geryon studied the ground in front of him for a while. Drew a small diagram
Thus in much the same way that Geryon—with his freaky red monstrousness and flappy wings—is not like the other children, Carson’s Autobiography—with its alchemical melange of prose and poetic techniques—is not like the other books on the shelf. In short, whether you choose to call it “a novel-in-verse” as the front cover (inaccurately, I think) bills it, or “a romance” as the title page proclaims, Autobiography is the embodiment of everything a good cross-genre work should be. In the quasi-scholarly forward, Carson acknowledges that “There were many different ways to tell a story like this,” but, to her immense credit, she has chosen the most effective and appropriate one.
Loren Graham can be said to have made a similarly laudable choice. He writes his short linked collection Mose entirely in tercets, a form which subtly evokes Dantean concepts of the underworld, but which—by virtue of Graham’s eschewal of the constraints of terza rima—allows the story to stretch and breathe. Thus does Graham, a former English instructor in the Texas penitentiary system, tell the tale of Mose Peterson, an inmate serving time for a grisly crime whose details surface gradually as he counts down the days of his sentence while obsessively writing letters to his most likely unrequited true love on the outside. A testament to the spare beauty and emotional power of poetic narratives, it is described as a book-length narrative poem, but each section—labeled with numbers starting at 1741 and ending at 1594 to signify the number of days he has left to serve—could stand on its own as an individual poem. Number 1729 illustrates Graham’s use of both poetic and fictional techniques—particularly sinewy syntax and flashback—to evoke the torturous play of memory and time on a man subjected to the rigidly enforced chronological order of prison life:
Dear Gracie I can’t talk to you
Thus, paradoxically, in this work about prison life, does Graham show us the power of the freedom that poetic narratives allow themselves to enjoy. Written in any other form, Mose could have been an overly long and boring tale of struggle and redemption, but thanks to the ability of poetic narratives to omit clunky exposition and excessive detail, Mose winds up a better work than if Graham had opted to write a conventional novel about the same subject.
Another testament to the way in which, by virtue of their poetic nature, poetic narratives can get away with sweeping generalizations and compressions of time, plot, and character development that would be difficult to justify in pure prose is Bernardine Evaristo’s fabulous The Emperor’s Babe: a Verse Novel of Londinium, 211 A. D. Like Anne Carson, Evaristo—thanks to meticulous research conducted during her time as Poet in Residence at the Museum of London—turns to the classics, sexes them up, and gives them new life. Kicking off the book with the Oscar Wilde epigraph “The one duty we have to history is to rewrite it,” she tells the first-person tale of Zuleika, a young black Roman citizen and the daughter of nouveau riche Sudanese immigrants who is sold into marriage to the businessman Felix, who is thrice her age and thrice her girth. The story itself is not especially elaborate: deep in the throes of longing for freedom and passion, Zuleika meets the black emperor Septimus Severus, with whom she has a brief but flaming-hot affair until he is killed, at which point her husband returns, discovers her adultery, and punishes her by poisoning her slowly with “arsenicum hidden in spicy sauces.” Because of the nature of her chosen form, Evaristo is able to dispatch the pivotal plot-point in the single, tiny poem, “Vale, Farewell, My Libyan”:
Indeed, Evaristo’s decision to use the non-idiomatic poetic narrative (although she herself calls it a novel-in-verse) frees her to engage in playful innovation, and to have a veritable field day with her use of voice, character, and language.
In addition to such compressions of plot and time, poetic narratives can also get away with sweeping declarative statements, the likes of which are far harder to pull off in pure prose novels. In what is, incidentally, a far more successful story of a child destined to become a naturalist than Leithauser’s Darlington’s Fall, Robert Penn Warren employs periodic interjections of wisdom in his own poetic narrative, Audubon. Penn Warren’s writing is lovely, cinematic, and gripping, and his chosen genre permits him to work in a vivid pastiche, incorporating bits of Audubon’s journal: “Wrote: ‘Ever since a Boy I have had an astonishing desire / to see Much of the World and particularly. To acquire a true knowledge of the Birds of North America,” alongside filmic descriptions of the flora and fauna of the American frontier. But one of the most striking characteristics about the form is the way it allows Penn Warren to intersperse such universal observations as can be found in poem VI where he writes: “What is love? // One name for it is knowledge.”
I should note here that not only do poetic narratives garner artistic authority by making such sweeping statements and by leaving a great deal of unnecessary detail out, but also by their flexibility in accommodating whatever details and techniques their authors see fit. During her segment of the seminar on long poems at this year’s AWP Conference, Lynn Keller, author of Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women, attributed the wild power of the poetic narrative—or the long narrative poem with which she is especially concerned—to its general “omnivorousness” and its status as a “portmanteau genre.” By this, she explained, she meant that one of the resources of longer narrative works is their ability to put everything in, as opposed to leaving too much out, inasmuch as poetic narratives can include elements of all manner of non-poetic genres, including politics, scripts, reportage, and advertisement, in addition to the traditional poetic modes of lyric, epic, and narrative.
Paul Muldoon makes the most of the genre’s potential for collage, montage, and pastiche in Madoc, his playful, linguistically acrobatic interweaving of the tale of a legendary Welshman purported to have reached North America hundreds of years before any other white settlers, and an eventually abandoned plan by the Romantic poets Coleridge and Robert Southey to create a Utopian community in the new world. Over the course of the tale’s 261 pages—those in the second part headed by the names of famous philosophers, from Heraclitus to Kristeva—Muldoon manages to incorporate journal entries from the Lewis and Clark expedition, observations by Southey (himself the author of a work called Madoc), a geometric diagram of an isosceles triangle, and a map of the Susquehenna River.
Graham, too, makes use of this genre’s remarkable congeniality to pastiche in his use of fragments in Mose, including bits of songs, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, and sermons. Even Carole Maso’s less than successful poetic narrative, Beauty is Convulsive: the Passion of Frida Kahlo, is at its best when it functions as a collage, assembled from Kahlo’s own letters and various reviews of both her work and Maso’s. Indeed, the form of Beauty—billed as “poetry-like fiction” and “a series of vibrant prose poems”—is such that it should be a much stronger book than it is, incorporating as it does many of the proven strengths of the hybrid genre. Unfortunately, because Maso gets too close to her subject—she goes so far as to write in her Author’s Note that, “as my own words became intertwined with hers, the book also became a deeply personal meditation: an attempt to be in some kind of dialogue with her across time and space—and with myself. The desire for the distance and earth to diminish between us. I experience Beauty not so much as a book but as a communion”—the book winds up not as a satisfyingly wild collaboration between the dead painter and the living poet, but rather as an out-of-control, over-written, self-indulgent mess. In anticipation of such complaints, though, Maso cleverly weaves the harsh criticism of her 1994 book The American Woman in the Chinese Hat (“an astonishingly vapid pornographic fantasy”) into the present text, paralleling it with a stinging critique of Kahlo’s diary (“Deborah Solomon ‘reviewing’ your diary in the New York Times would like to insult you a little longer”). Even though readers would be better advised to simply read the Hayden Herrera biography from which Maso draws most of her material, Beauty nevertheless showcases one of the benefits of working in such an unbridled genre, namely this ability to deal preemptively with criticism by erecting a shield of self-awareness, deflecting and defying complaints by meeting them head on. Such an effect would be difficult to achieve in virtually any other form.
Clearly, as Maso’s work indicates, the poetic narrative is hardly a foolproof genre; it too stands to go awry, and even to fail. Les Murray’s surprisingly unsatisfying Fredy Neptune—a rambling, first-person account of the experiences of a wayfaring sailor, the son of German immigrants to Australia who happens to witness some of the most violent events of the 20th century—fails not because of any sort of myopic adherence to a particular verse form, but rather because of its dedication to the novelistic element of narrative. Murray seems so determined to tell Fredy’s tale in all its richly detailed minutiae that he winds up with a story that amounts less to poetry than to chopped prose. Indeed, reading passages like the one in which Fredy first encounters his love interest, Laura, one wonders why Murray didn’t just write the book as a prose novel:
I met Laura that way. I was hanging around the dedication
In the book, the lines go almost all the way to the end of the page in a tiny font that makes it not only most forbidding to read, but also extremely prose-y and full of flat constructions and excess words. By erring on the narrative side of the poetic narrative equation, Murray sacrifices most of the linguistic precision and expressive rhythm that makes poetry different than—and some might say superior to—prose.
In a later letter, dated 16 November 1823, Pushkin wrote to his former schoolmate, the poet Baron Anton Delvig, of his work on Onegin, “I am now writing a new poema [‘long poem,’ ‘narrative poem’], in which I permit myself to babble beyond all limits.” I too could expound ad infinitum on the disappointing tedium exhibited by contemporary novels-in-verse in contrast to the power of the non-idiomatic poetic narrative and its ability to transgress genre boundaries. There remain plenty of books I’d still like to discuss at length, including Kim Addonizio’s Jimmy and Rita, Rosemary Grigg’s Skygirl, and Andrew Hudgins’ The Glass Hammer, and on and on, but in order to avoid launching myself into the interminable territory of a dissertation, I’ll refrain. In any case, these genre hybrids work best when their authors don’t agonize over what exactly they are, but rather allow the works, in all their polyvocal, pastiche-filled brilliance to run relatively wild. Similarly, we as readers should embrace the wildness of this genre, reveling in its ability to do everything other genres can, and then some. Rather than puzzling over which shelf such works belong on, we should seek them out, take them down, and read them. In poem VII in Audubon, Warren creates what amounts to a mission statement for the very best of this cross-genre work:
Tell me a story.
Indeed, a story of deep delight—a story innovatively and poetically told—is exactly what we can ask of poetic narratives, and more often than not, this is exactly what we’ll receive.