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