Sunday, December 5, 2010

A Starting Point

I stumbled across a list of verse novels not long after I’d finished the National Novel Writing Month marathon that ended in the prose version of Constance, Or . The 50,000-word manuscript written for NaNoWriMo at a breakneck speed of 16,666.666… words a day is so bad I’d light the thing AND myself on fire before I’d let someone read it.

(I write this and wonder: why then does the prose Constance lurk in a drawer in my room? Why is it on my hard drive? I have to add it to the list of things that—in the event of my untimely demise—a trusted friend must come and confiscate before not-so-trusted relatives swoop in for the funeral and inevitably begin nosing about in search of unmentionable sources of embarrassment and shame.)

Anyway, you get the picture: the thing was bad, but I couldn’t let the concept of the book go. That’s when I read David Mason’s Ludlow and knew that like it, Constance, Or must be in verse. I started researching and came across this list in the Guardian.

A Top-Ten List of Verse Novels

To date, I’ve only read three of Roberts’ top ten (I know, another source for shame) and one of those I’d already read before. One of them, Golden Gate, I can’t wait to read, but am paradoxically waiting to read. Its verse form is too much like mine and I don’t want to be influenced. Thanks, however, to the list I found Glyn Maxwell’s gorgeous Sugar Mile.

Roberts has his own take on the genre that begs to be quoted pretty fully here:

"It sounds like a publisher's nightmare: too long and prosaic for poetry fans, but too concerned with its own form and music for readers to dip into on the train. The verse novel (like the rock opera or the sound sculpture) is the awkward child of successful parents, destined to disappoint both of them. The pitfalls are many. Verse novels can be full of bad poetry: essential but dull building blocks to get from A to B. Or they can be strong on music but light on narrative. Reading a bad verse novel is very hard work with little reward. You think it must be good for you; you just can't work out how.
"But that's not the whole story. The best verse novels can be remarkable. One or two might even creep into my top 10 novels, or my top 10 books of poems. The problem is the definition. It's a slippery one. I've drawn the line at poetic, lyrical fiction writing. There's plenty of that, but a true verse novel attempts something different. It is as intricate in form as any poem. It is often set out in stanzas. It may have a rhyme scheme. Most true verse novels are written by poets, and they often only do it once or twice in a career. So how does it differ from an epic poem? Something about the scale and complexity of the story which pushes it into novel territory? Something about intent? You could argue that a verse novel can only be written in conscious awareness of the novel as a form, which counts out Beowulf and Paradise Lost, despite their scale and richness of story and character.”

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