Monday musings on Australian literature: Poetry Month 2022 and Verse novels

Having launched their Poetry Month in 2021 which I wrote about at the time, Red Room Company (or, Red Room Poetry) clearly felt it was successful, because they are back again this year with another Poetry Month. Its aim is to “increase access, awareness and visibility of poetry in all its forms and for all audiences”, and it will run throughout the month of August.

From what I can tell, they are following a similar plan to last year with their 30in30 daily poetry commissions, poetry ambassadors, online workshops, prizes and residencies, and more. Do check their page, which includes a link to a calendar, to find ways in which you can take part, or, simply, introduce yourself to some new poets and poems.

Meanwhile, I thought I’d celebrate the month by writing a little tribute to verse novels.

Verse novels

When I decided to write this post, I found a good introduction to verse novels at The Australian Poetry Library. However, when I checked the link I’d saved, it said “currently unavailable”. I will share what it said, but you may not be able to find it online any more. (They do still have a Facebook page.)

A verse novel tells a long and complex story with many characters, much as a prose novel would, through the medium of narrative verse. The verse may be blank verse in the manner of Shakespeare, or free verse, or (less often) formal rhymed verse of any type.

The ancient epics were verse novels, of a sort, and so were the Alexandrian epyllia such as Apollonius’ Argonautica, but the modern verse novel, like the novel itself, is a fashion that found a large audience in the nineteenth-century: Don Juan (Byron), Amours de Voyage (Arthur Hugh Clough), The Ring and the Book (Robert Browning).

Movies, paperback novels and television seem to have killed it off in the early twentieth century, but it found a strong revival after the 1970s: Another life (Derek Walcott), The golden gate (Vikram Seth) and The changing light at Sandover (James Merrill).

Notable Australian verse novelists are Alan Wearne, Dorothy Porter, Les Murray, Steven Herrick and John Tranter.

A selection of Australian verse novels

Susan Hawthorne, Limen, book cover

Wikipedia’s article on the form provides a brief history, going back to epics like Gilgamesh. After appearing to have declined with Modernism, it has, Wikipedia continues, “undergone a remarkable revival” since the 1960s-70s, and is particularly popular in the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. I wonder why these particular regions?

I should add, though, that verse novels do have a longer history in Australia than this later 20th century revival suggests. CJ Dennis’ The songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) and The moods of Ginger Mick (1916)(my post) are earlier, and very popular, examples.

Of course, I did a little search of Trove, but, given the form’s apparent recent revival and the fact that Trove is not so useful yet for recent decades, I didn’t find much. However, I was intrigued to find reference to a satirical work called Solstice, by 20-year-old Matt Rubenstein. It was shortlisted for The Australian-Vogel award (in 1994, I presume). Sen, writing in The Canberra Times, was reasonably positive, saying that “the narrative has its share of sentimental blokes as well as philosophers like the homeless Arthur, and the relationships and issues it explores are treated relevantly as well as entertainingly. It could start a verse-novel cult. Could, I said.”

I’m not sure that there’s been quite a cult, but my little list below confirms some level of ongoing popularity in Australia. But, back to Rubenstein’s Solstice, I also found through Trove that it had been adapted by the author into a play to be performed at the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1996, with Kate Ceberano as the featured singer. That says something about the quality of the work. I note that the play is available from Ligature Digital Publishing.

Anyhow, I do enjoy a verse novel, and have reviewed several on my blog, as have some other Aussie litbloggers. Here is a selection of some of the verse novels we have reviewed on our blogs:

  • Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ruby Moonlight (2012) (my post, and Lisa’s): this is particularly interesting because it is a First Nations historical fiction verse novel. It is a moving, and generous read.
  • Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov poems (2013) (my post): also historical fiction, this work tells the story of the Petrov affair providing a personal perspective on a very political event.
  • Susan Hawthorne, Limen (2013) (my post): Hawthorne’s quiet yet forceful work explores women going camping, the threats and vulnerabilities that confront them, and how they navigate the lines that appear.
  • Geoff Page, The scarring (1999) (my post): Page has written other verse novels, including Freehold, which I have also read, but The scarring is particularly strong and gut-wrenching about war, the mistakes people make, and the power men can wield over women.
  • Dorothy Porter, El Dorado (2007) (Brona): Porter’s last verse novel is described by Brona as “another dark crime story with a psychological twist”.
  • Dorothy Porter, The monkey’s mask (1994) (Brona): Porter’s most famous verse novel is also a psychological crime story, and, says Brona is “gritty, exciting & passionate”. It surely qualifies now as a classic, particularly given it is taught in schools and universities. It was also adapted for a feature film.
  • Alan Wearne, The night markets (1986) (Bill): this book was highly praised when it came out, and won significant awards including the ALS Gold Medal and the National Book Council Award. Bill knew Wearne at school, and has read this book a few times “because it feels so intensely familiar”. The Canberra Times reported on its ALS Gold Medal win, saying the judges ‘were impressed by the ambition and confidence with which Wearne approached his task. The novel’s subject, political and social change in the past two decades, had rarely been approached, they said, and its verse form was “bold and exciting”‘.

Readings Bookshop has provided lists of Australian and non-Australian children’s and YA verse novels, for those of you interested in these audiences.

Do you read verse novels? And if so, care to share your favourites (Aussie or otherwise)?

28 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Poetry Month 2022 and Verse novels

  1. You know my favourite and thanks for mentioning it.
    I read John Kinsella sometimes and have reviewed poetry and a novel of his, Hollow Earth. But no verse novel that I know of. I hope I’m wrong.

    • A pleasure Bill … I enjoyed reading some responses to it in Trove too, but you were the one who brought it to my attention. I haven’t come across a Kinsella verse novel, though I haven’t specifically checked either.

  2. I should thank you for solving a mystery for me; namely, what the devil’s happened to that Australian Poetry Library website since about Christmas last year. I didn’t know that they have a Facebook page. It says there that they’ve taken it offline because it’s vulnerable to a bug, and they’re waiting in some bureaucratic queue for a university IT representative to fix it. Nice to know that it might be back sometime; I thought its cyber doors had been slammed shut because someone discovered we were all having too much fun with it for free…
    I went to a marvellous panel discussion yesterday (via Zoom) to mark Day One of Red Room’s Poetry Month. We have the Red Dirt Festival starting here in Alice on Thursday, which includes an NT poetry showcase event (Red Room again) as well as a regional final of the Australian Poetry Slam. All rather exciting.
    UWAP published the verse novel “Malcolm” by Leni Shilton a year or two ago; she’s a long-time Alice resident. I haven’t read it yet (TBR again) but her earlier collection “Walking with Camels” is terrific. I might have mentioned it on your blog once (or twice?) before…

    • Oh! I use that Australian Poetry Library often, and but not so often I knew about this…
      Except that now that I think about it, it’s not popping up searches.
      I wonder if harassing the university would be a good idea…

      • Maybe we need to get a little online lobby group happening, Lisa. We’ll be nice, of course 🙂 But it’s the only place I’ve been able to find copies of certain poems when I’ve wanted them, so it’s been a very handy resource for poetry nerds in remote places (or at least it has been for this one).

        • Who would we need to pressure? I mean, if there’s a queue, that means they don’t have enough resources for the queue to progress. That might mean lack of staff, (or it might be covid staff absences) so it might be a matter of money/more staff, or it might be that poetry isn’t thought to be a priority so it keeps dropping to the bottom of the To-Do list.
          That means an approach needs to be made to someone high up enough to make a difference… who would that be? (No names, just the role.)

        • Good questions. My uninformed guess is that poetry keeps dropping to the bottom of the queue. In a tram now to visit an ex-colleague. Will think later. It’s such a great resource.

        • We need to drop a subtle hint to the applicable sub-dean that their uni’s funding is about to be cut, because a relative of the Prime Minister is a fan of the site and is DISGUSTED that they can’t access it anymore.
          I volunteer to pose as said relative. Just wait until I’ve secured my passage to Tierra del Fuego in the event that I’m rumbled.

    • Glad to be of service Glen … I didn’t have time to read the FB page in detail bit saw that they still seemed active and still had the link up to the site. I must have got this verse novel quotes last year … if I have an inspiration I jot links and info in my Notes app under Monday Musings which is where I found it.

      Red Room are an impressive bunch aren’t they.

      I think you have mentioned Shilton before. Will look out for her.

  3. Hi Sue, I do like verse novels and poetry. I am a fan of Dorothy Porter ‘s verse novels. There are the Australian Poetry Slam heats on at present. I went last Friday, to support one of my friends in our writing group. She won, the heat at Moonee Ponds. As a result she will participate in another heat in September, to find the Victorian representative at the national final in Sydney.

  4. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is an odd case: a verse novel with a prose commentary.

    Apart from Nabokov and Byron–I have read part of Don Juan, but did not read it through–I have not read much of post-epic verse fiction. An anthology upstairs has an excerpt from a verse novel by John Masefield, written in ottava rima. I’d probably have forgotten it except for a couple that is so bad as to be unforgettable.

    • Any reason why no modern verse novels George? Maybe because you’re not from the Caribbean, NZ or Australia.

      I do like unforgettably bad writing … particularly poetry/verse.

      • I once read an editorial for a fairly low-brow publication (shall we say) which claimed that a certain international celebrity was, “at the coalface of the Zeitgeist today.”

        “Unforgettable…that’s what you are…”

  5. My brain couldn’t wrap itself around the idea of a verse novel because I’ve never seen one before. I did a bunch of Googling and found a book whose author/title I recognized and found samples online. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds is a YA novel, but now I see what a novel in verse can look like. I think it may be a form that excels in areas where verbal storytelling is part of the culture, which would include black folks in the U.S.

  6. Thankyou WG for this lovely post! I enjoyed reading it while waiting to collect Mr Tenor Clef from an appointment today. I haven’t read any verse novels, but felt more open hearted towards exploring one, thanks to your tribute. Grateful for the link to children’s verse novels, too thanks, as I’m preparing to buy a book for a child’s birthday. Last but not least, for some unknown reason I was expecting your tribute to include a limerick on the joys of verse novels! lol with me please! 😊

    • Haha Treble … that’s cheeky re the limericks!! I seem to have hung up my limerick hat these days!

      However, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Do think about Ruby Moonlight. I think you might like that one… and The scarring or Petrov poems from Canberra poets.

      I hope Mr Tenor Clef is well … and you of course too.

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