Two of my favorite verse novels, Sugar Mile and Ludlow are fictionalizations of read historical events. I’ll get to Sugar Mile soon, but first I’ll briefly touch on Ludlow.
The 1914 massacre of miners by the National Guard in Ludlow, Colorado serves as the source for Mason’s novel. Like Byron’s Don Juan, the novel is written in 8-line stanzas. The lines are largely uniform metrically: five strong accents each. The form allows the poet to have the regal strength of Milton’s blankverse when he wishes, but frees him at times to have the explosive force of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sprung rhythms.
Here’s an example of the beauty of Mason’s prosody. In it, one of the main characters, Luisa remembers the death of her mother:
…what stillness she became one autumn morning,
washed by women while her daughter sobbed.
Gone now as the earth itself was gone
it seemed, days at a time. The pinon jays
that fed amid the scrub—they were not real.
Jackrabbits pausing on a knoll were ghosts
as big as dogs, come for memory’s scraps,
the leavings of a life no longer lived.
She heard the neighbors talk: “What can we do?”
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.” (38)
If that didn’t convince you check out Mason reading sections from the novel near the spot where Ludlow’s victims perished:
David Mason on PBS
My only complaint with Ludlow, is the intrusion of a first person narrative from the poet’s POV that relates the story of investigating the massacre. In these passages, Mason discusses his process in writing the poem. I wasn't sure these discursive sections served the work; they distanced, rather than connected me to the story. (Oddly enough, the first person, my one complaint against Mason, is one of my favorite elements of Maxwell's Sugar Mile. See the link below for my discussion of that topic.)
Mason’s historical novel succeeds on so many levels. One of them is in the argument Mason makes for narrative verse in his afterword. The argument is as persuasive as any I have ever read for the form. I sum the argument up in my essay, “I write I: the First Person in Sugar Mile.”
“…we must begin with a question Mason says any narrative poet must confront: “Why didn’t you just write it in prose?” While acknowledging the nearly overwhelming prejudices held by both publisher and public against storytelling in poetry, Mason insists on several advantages that the form provides both writer and reader. In a world dominated by the movie, he insists that “verse is more cinematic than prose in its rhythms and images, its narrative economy.” Most contemporary readers believe that poetry is “more difficult” to read, yet poetry can “eject reams of exposition”-- often the dead weight of a lot of prose. Unlike the expectations of prose in poems, “speakers of dialogue don’t need to be identified but are inferred from context.” Mason admits that longer poems can lose intensity quickly, but so can novels. “In the right hands, verse actually has more clarity, drive and economy than prose, and it can offer literary pleasures of a sort unavailable in other genres” (227-228).
To read a rough draft of the essay in its entirety, visit:
Sugar Mile Essay